Ehud Olmert has no idea what he missed. Due to the political- and security-related affairs (probably legal issues too), the prime minister had to pass on an invitation issued by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones. The ambassador took advantage of a symbolic coincidence - the aircraft carrier Harry S Truman, named after the president who recognized the State of Israel, is currently cruising between Israel and Cyprus - to invite a group of Israeli dignitaries onboard, an American gesture in honor of Israel's 60th anniversary. The PM sent his senior advisers, Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman instead.
The visit on the Truman puts a lot of things in perspective - and demands a degree of humility. Navy Chief Eliezer Marom, who joined the tour of the Truman, says that the command and control systems on the Sa'ar-5 class of missile boats are just as good as those of the Americans, but there's no comparing size.
The length of the aircraft carrier is 333 meters, it is 76 meters wide and, fully fitted, weighs 97,000 tons. Some 5,200 sailors serve on the Truman, including 200 pilots and navigators. The ship carries a complement of 50-60 aircraft, most of them F-18 fighter-bombers and about 10 helicopters.
The nuclear-powered Nimitz Class aircraft carrier is one of nine in the U.S. Navy. Its most recent deployment was to the Persian Gulf several months ago, where its aircraft took part in support missions for operations in Iraq.
The Truman is first and foremost a magnificent fighting machine. Several hours on the ship were sufficient to impress the guests - the synchronized activity that included the takeoff and landing of dozens of aircraft. As the aircraft approach landing, it lowers an arresting hook which grabs onto a cable on deck, stopping the aircraft with a sudden jerk. The guests flew in on a small transport aircraft and were surprised by the blow. On their way out, they knew that the takeoff was a less pleasant experience, but at this point they had no choice.
The hosts were keen to emphasize the link to the Truman heritage. Well-known statements, like "the buck stops here" and "give'em hell," can be found throughout the aircraft carrier.
Part of the Truman heritage includes a deep commitment to Israel. For the ship's captain, Herman A. Shelanski, who is busy preparing for his daughter's bat mitzvah, it is a self-evident friendship.
Another source of pride on the Truman is the diversity of the crew, who come from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. "However, here they are part of something bigger," they said.
Shelanski, like many of his senior officers, is both a pilot and a sailor. Donald Nesbit, commander of an F-18 squadron (although, unlike any Israeli colleague, he does not bother to reveal this little detail about himself in a long conversation), from Virginia, says he became a Navy pilot completely by accident. "In 1990 in college, I saw a Navy recruitment booth. I said: 'Hey, I can do this. You look around in the flight course and it is not difficult to notice that most there are Alpha-male types."
He says that one day his flying days will come to an end and "I will have to look for a real job."
The hosts tell the guests a joke, that obviously changes identities according to the visitors: an Israeli pilot whose helicopter was in trouble over the sea lands on an aircraft carrier. The captain chastises him: "How dare you? This is an American aircraft carrier." "Really?," says the Israeli innocently. "I thought it was one of ours."
Major General Marom said that he would not mind "getting one like this." Turbowicz was quick to respond: "Your branch received enough in the multi-year program." It seems the navy will have to make do without an aircraft carrier, at least in this century.