Obama in Israel: One Tough Audience
This is the fourth in a series of reports from Nation correspondents analyzing the impact of Barack Obama's international fact-finding tour.
The possible election of Senator Barack Obama as the next President of the United States could have tremendous implications for Israelis, so why has there been no evidence of Obamamania in Israel during his intense, thirty-six-hour visit to the country?
For one thing, Israel is one of the few countries in the world where George W. Bush would still win over 50 percent in the public opinion polls. So there is no yearning for change in the American leadership, as there is among many Americans, and with most of the people around the world.
Israeli leaders have their own tzures (problems, in Yiddish). Prime Minister Olmert is competing with Bush in America when it comes to plummeting in the polls, and the latest news about investigations into his behavior, together with the latest tractor-terror attack in Jerusalem, pushed Obama onto the side columns of the day of his visit.
A few hours before his arrival on Tuesday evening, the song they were singing in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv (where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated fourteen years ago) was not "Yes We Can" but "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree." The occasion was the ending of the three-year regular army service of Gilad Shalit's military pals. The buddies of the young corporal with the intellectual, very non-macho appearance, who was captured in an across the border raid by Hamas militants two years ago, convened together with his father, Noam (who sounds like he's a supporter of the left-wing Meretz party), in the square which has hosted hundreds of thousands of Peace Now demonstrators, to lobby for government action to ensure Gilad's release in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.
This is a clear reflection of the fact that Senator John McCain's story-narrative as a combat officer who was a prisoner of war resonates much more easily with Israelis than Obama's extraordinary story-narrative, which includes such exotic and unfamiliar stations as Hawaii, Africa, Indonesia, Harvard and the streets of Chicago.
And yet there has been a tremendous amount of curiosity in Israel about Obama. He has been featured in a number of major stories on Israeli TV and in the print media. The day before his arrival, the mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot devoted the entire second and third page to very favorable articles about his impending visit. One wag noted that it was British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's misfortune to come right before Obama, causing his visit to go by almost unnoticed by the media and the general public. It was if he was "upstaged by the arrival of the Beatles."
There was a fierce competition among Israeli leaders to arrange quality Obama time, any time, with the man that they all understand has a real chance of becoming the next President of the United States. Even Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu did not want to repeat the mistake he made with President Clinton, by getting off on the wrong foot. He made it very clear that he wanted to ensure the possibility of a positive working relationship in the future.
Particularly significant was the fact that Obama also made sure to find time to visit Ramallah and meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. This was in sharp contrast with Senator John McCain, who didn't include the Palestinians on his agenda when he came.
Unlike the Bush Administration and Senator McCain, Obama also expressed strong support for dialogue and negotiations with Syria.
And with all the talk about a possible American or Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear program, an issue that causes genuine anxiety for all Israelis, there is also a realization that, unlike the situation in Iraq in 1981, there probably is no military solution to this problem, and Obama's advocacy of a concerted international diplomatic effort to confront it may be the most effective way to go.
Of course, the Senator said all the right words to reassure Israelis, and Jewish voters in the United States. And he made the obligatory visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, to the Western Wall (though not to the separation wall between much of the West Bank and Israel proper) and to the southern Negev town of Sderot, which has become a symbol to Israelis because of its suffering from the constant firing over the past seven years of Kassam missiles by Palestinian militants from Gaza. After all, he's a politician, and this was a political visit.
The day he left, a team of four Yediot Ahronot journalists wrote a gushing report summarizing the visit, using the headline, "Our Romance with Obama." The lead paragraph read, "Almost everyone who met Barak Obama yesterday--in the hotel, in the Foreign Ministry, at the President's Residence and in Sderot--was convinced: this is the next president of the United States. His enthralling, back-slapping personality suits the Israelis like a glove on a hand, and it recalled the romance that Israelis had with Bill Clinton."
The bland McCain would have no chance in a competition with Obama's charisma. After all, the most popular TV program here is the Israeli version of American Idol, A Star is Born.
Both Yediot Ahronot and Haa'retz emphasized Obama's commitment to be engaged in promoting the peace process from the first days of his Administration. "The Middle East will be at the top of my agenda," was the headline of an exclusive interview that Obama gave to Nahum Barnea, Israel's most influential political commentator.
As Uri Savir, former director-general of the foreign ministry and president of the Peres Center for Peace wrote in an op-ed in Yediot Ahronot titled, "Good for Israel": "Israel needs an American president who will accompany the peace process, including the setting of time-tables for progress towards a permanent agreement.... Israel needs an active American involvement in the Syrian track.... The election of Obama as president will be a positive turning point in America's image in the world, including in our region," and will enable the American president to play a constructive role in promoting peace.