President Barack Obama is making his first visit to Israel as president, the fifth serving US president to do so. This liveblog (now closed) tracks his arrival and the airport ceremony. We’re liveblogging his afternoon and evening in Jerusalem here.
Hundreds at Ben-Gurion Airport await Obama’s arrival
Preamble: The president is due to land at Ben-Gurion Airport a little after noon Israel time. Here’s his itinerary. And here’s Raphael Ahren on why he’s going where’s going — places like the Israel Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls — and not going where he’s not going — like the Western Wall.
Obama, who’s visited Israel twice before, is the fifth serving president to come, after Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton (four times) and George W. Bush (twice). Here’s a photo essay showing those previous presidential visits.
Obama said in an interview last week that he’d be coming to “listen,” but doubtless he’ll be doing plenty of talking too behind closed doors with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah tomorrow. Here’s David Horovitz on the differences on opinion and mindset between Obama and Netanyahu, especially over settlements and Iran.
Our Matti Friedman, at Ben-Gurion Airport awaiting Obama, says hundreds of journalists have been there for ages, clearing security and poised for the arrival of Air Force One. The IDF’s honor guard is making its final preparations to greet the president.
Jerusalemites avoiding traffic chaos, by staying home
Jerusalem residents are bracing themselves for the planned road closures and inevitable traffic jams. As of right now, most of them seem to be opting to stay at home — the roads are unusually empty.
The Social driving app Waze — which lets drivers know where there are tie-ups, and suggests alternative routes designed to get them to their destinations in the quickest time possible — plans to be ready, unlike the last time there was a major road closure in Israel, when the app sent tens of thousands of drivers to a highway that was “rained out” of service.
Though Waze will update drivers, and the Israel police have opened a toll-free call line (in Israel, 1700-553-100) for the public, the major traffic routes affected are already known:
Route 1, the main highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, will be shut down for an hour or so starting at 1:30 p.m., as Obama’s convoy travels from the airport to the capital. (The president himself will be helicoptering.)
In Jerusalem, all the roads between the King David Hotel and Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street will be closed for the duration of Obama’s stay.
Gideon Sa’ar: I don’t know any Israelis who don’t love America
“We’re taking the plastic covering off the red carpet,” says the coordinator of the ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport to Army Radio.
Israel’s two commercial TV stations — Channel 2 and Channel 10 — have switched to nonstop Obama coverage, with crews at the airport and outside the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, and panels of analysts in the studio. State TV, Channel 1, is showing a recorded music program.
Various dignitaries are beginning to take their positions at the airport. Ministers, army top brass and others are making their way to their places. “I don’t know any Israelis who don’t love America,” says Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar. “And I’m sure that will find expression during this visit.”
Hagel set to visit Israel next month
Last night saw a major demonstration outside the President’s Residence, urging Obama to release jailed-for-life spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard.
Shimon Peres is set to give Obama a petition signed by 200,000 Israelis urging the same thing. In The Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall) today, by contrast, Bret Stephens urges: “Don’t Free Jonathan Pollard: A man who betrayed his country is no martyr to the Jewish people.”
Likud minister Gilad Erdan, at the airport, says Obama will find a new government here, full of good intentions, sharing the US worldview. Channel 2′s Udi Segal notes, by contrast, that Obama would really want to say to the new Israeli government, “End the occupation,” but almost certainly won’t say anything that blunt.
New word — breaking just now — is that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is to visit here next month — doubtless with Iran, again, very high on the agenda. The timing of the Obama visit, analysts say, is very Iran-linked too. Netanyahu had spoken last fall of this spring as being the moment of truth on Iran. Obama wants to make sure, face-to-face, that the prime minister isn’t about to do anything unexpected, and that the US and Israel are as coordinated as they can be.
Presidential limo breaks down
Israeli and Jordanian officials have been coordinating the transfer of a replacement presidential limousine from a US storage facility in Jordan to Israel, after the one parked at Ben-Gurion Airport failed to start this morning.
The limo is an armored Chevrolet known as “The Beast.”
A transport plane is on its way with the substitute vehicle now.
Channel 2 analyst predicts no peace initiatives during visit
At the airport, Matti Friedman reports: “There’s a real party atmosphere here — 100s of reporters, officials in suits, a few US soldiers in uniform. Lots of flags. They’ve set up a tent where reporters are given coffee, cookies and avocado sandwiches.
Channel 2′s wise analyst Ehud Ya’ari says this visit is a “correction” to Obama’s Cairo trip four years ago, when he “reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood.” Here in Israel, Obama will highlight the Jewish connection to this land, Ya’ari notes, a theme that was absent from his Cairo address. Ya’ari predicts no dramatic peace initiatives in the course of the visit.
The manager of the King David Hotel reports that the entire hotel has been taken over by Obama and his entourage. The president is traveling with some 600 people. The King David has 230 rooms. They’re not all tripling up; other hotels are also playing host, but the King David is the HQ.
The hundreds of traveling journalists, meanwhile, are set up at the Inbal Hotel around the corner.
Matti Friedman is now photographing US Black Hawk helicopters on the airport tarmac.
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, part of the welcoming party, declares his opposition to Palestinian statehood — noting that if there were one, Ben Gurion airport itself would be under threat from 2 kilometers away — minutes after coalition colleague Yael German (Yesh Atid) has expressed her desire for a two-state solution and her support for Obama’s efforts to advance it. We shouldn’t obsess about the differences between us, says Bennett.
Air Force One pilot calls in to Ben-Gurion control tower from 3,000 feet
Nitzan Horowitz, the Meretz Knesset member, reminds us all that “Obama is a sex symbol,” and there’s never been anyone like him in the White House.
More substantively, Horowitz thinks this visit will mark “a reset” of sorts in ties between Israel and the administration.
TV has tapped into the radio communication between Air Force One and the Ben-Gurion Airport control tower. The pilot asks for permission to land, coming down from 3,000 feet. Unsurprisingly, he gets the okay.
Obama’s plane touches down with ‘Shalom’ from pilot
Obama’s plane is coming in to land.
Air Force One pilot broadcasts a friendly “Shalom.”
Plane taxis along the Ben-Gurion runway.
The IDF orchestra strikes up, the honor guard takes up its position, and the visit is under way.
Gazans demonstrate against Obama’s visit
A large procession of “national Islamic forces” is holding a rally in the Gaza Strip to protest President Obama’s visit to Israel and the PA, the Palestinian news agency Ma’an reports.
Another rally is also being held in Hebron. On Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority issued a ban on releasing photos and videos from Hebron. The PA is hoping to avoid embarrassment over hateful displays in the city.
Israel prepares to welcome Obama
Limousines are taking up their positions on the tarmac.
The honor guard is in place.
Air Force One is approaching the ceremonial area.
Ministers and other notables are lined up along 80 yards of red carpet.
Honor guard comes to attention, trumpets blare
Obama’s plane comes to a halt.
Trumpets blare. The honor guard comes to attention.
Mitch Ginsburg notes: The IDF, never much of a powerhouse when it comes to formations and marches, has put together an 88-member honor guard: 22 IAF flight school cadets, 22 Navy officer cadets, 22 infantry cadets and 22 female Military Police officers. The IDF Spokesperson’s Office relays that they trained for the event for the past three days.
‘Great to be here,’ says Obama
The front door of Air Force One opens. From the back door, members of Obama’s entourage disembark.
Shimon Peres takes his place at the front of the welcoming party.
A pregnant pause.
Peres and Netanyahu walk toward one end of the red carpet, along it, and toward the plane.
And here’s Obama, waving, and coming down the stairs alone.
“How are you. Good to see you,” he says to Netanyahu.
“How are you my friend,” he says to Peres.
“Great to be here,” he tells the chief of protocol.
The anthems play
Standing between Netanyahu and Peres, Obama listens to the US national anthem, played by the IDF Orchestra.
And now Israel’s “Hatikvah” anthem.
Peres leads Obama along the red carpet. At one point, Peres puts his arm warmly around Obama’s back. Netanyahu and the president exchange a few words.
‘People are so excited’ about the visit, Peres tells Obama
Peres says, “People are really excited… I never saw the people so excited.”
“I’m thrilled to be here,” says Obama.
The president is introduced to the line of dignitaries. He meets Yuli Edelstein, the new Knesset speaker, and is told that Edelstein sat in jail in the FSU for seeking to come to Israel.
“Very nice to see you… Good to see you,” Obama says as he is introduced to the chief rabbis and to government ministers.
Netanyahu tells the president about each minister in turn. “It’s wonderful to see you,” he tells Tzipi Livni.
“I’m sure” we’ll spend time together, Obama tells Yair Lapid.
Defense Minister Ya’alon says something to the effect of Israel’s security being the US’s security.
Now Obama meets a representative of the diplomatic community here, and shakes hands with Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren.
On to the various religious leaders. To Nir Barkat, Jerusalem’s mayor. Members of Netanyahu’s staff.
Peres to Obama: We face the same dangers. We share the same hopes.
Now Peres and Netanyahu are being introduced by Obama to members of his entourage.
It’s all smiles and endless handshakes.
The Peres-Obama-Netanyahu triumvirate now walks to the podium.
Peres is the first to speak:
President Barack Obama, Dear Friend,
Welcome to Israel.
We welcome you as a great President of the United States of America. As a remarkable world leader. As a historic friend of Israel. Of the Jewish People.
Your visit here is a crown demonstration of the profound relationship between our two nations. The people of Israel welcome you with open hearts.
From the depth of our hearts, From the depths of our history, “תודה רבה” Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, America. Thank you for what you are. Thank you for what you do. Thank you for the hopes you carry with you. In a few minutes you will be on your way to Jerusalem. Our ancient capital. The cradle of all believers, of all prayers. You will see the hills and mountains where our prophets preached. Where the soul of the Jewish People was born. Where the State of Israel was created.
America and Israel are somewhat different in size. In size, not in destiny. The American dream stems from the bible. The Israeli spirit is inspired by American exceptionalism.
We are separated by an ocean and united by the commitment to freedom, to justice, by the ongoing struggle for peace. We face the same dangers. We share the same hopes.
The United States became great by giving. Not by taking. Your generosity enabled freedom to prevail all over the world. A world without America’s leadership, without her moral voice, your moral voice, would be a darker world. A world without your friendship, will invite aggression against Israel.
Your story reflects the history of the world as it is. Your vision reflects the future as it should be. You have offered the American people and the peoples of the world a leadership of vision, a leadership of values. A leadership dedicated to a brighter tomorrow.
In times of peace, in times of war, your support for Israel is unshakable. You enabled our security in an extraordinary way, to project strength. To strive for peace. Strengthening security is the best way to strengthen peace.
We long to see end the conflict with the Palestinians. To see the Palestinians enjoy freedom and prosperity in their own state. We extend our hand in peace to all the countries of the Middle East.
America stood by our side from the very beginning. You support us as we rebuild our ancient homeland and as we defend our land. From Holocaust to redemption. From Truman to Obama.
Mr. President, wherever you go in our land, you will meet the friendship and warmth of the people of Israel.
Mr. President, the people of Israel want you to feel at home. So, welcome home Mr. President.
Netanyahu to Obama: Thank you
Netanyahu hails the “historic moment” of this visit — Obama’s first foreign trip in the second term of his presidency.
“I come here today with a simple message… thank you,” Netanyahu says.
Says Netanyahu: “You have chosen to come to Israel as the first foreign visit of your second term, you the leader of the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, have chosen to come to our somewhat smaller but no less vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East, the one and only Jewish state of Israel.
“On behalf of the government and the people of Israel, I come here today with a simple message for you and the American people: Thank you. Thank you for standing by Israel at this time of historic change in the Middle East.
“Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat. Thank you for enhancing Israel’s ability to exercise that right through generous military assistance, revolutionary missile defense programs, and unprecedented security and intelligence cooperation.
“Thank you, Mr. President, for upholding the Jewish people’s right to a Jewish state in our historic homeland, and for boldly defending that right at the United Nations. And thank you for strengthening the unbreakable alliance between our two nations during your presidency.
“In an unstable and uncertain Middle East, the need for our alliance is greater than ever. It is the key to thwarting dangers and advancing peace; it’s the key to achieve a stable and secure peace that the people of Israel yearn for with our neighbors with our all hearts. We seek a peace with our Palestinian neighbors. I look forward to working with you over the next four years to make the alliance between our two countries even stronger.
“Mr. President, on this historic visit, you will have an opportunity to see a different side of Israel. You will see past, present, and future in this tiny land which has left such a huge imprint on the course of civilization. You will see the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls, the world’s oldest text of the Bible, written in Hebrew here 2,000 years ago, scrolls that bear witness to the timeless bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
“You will meet the young men and women of Israel who make it one of the most creative and dynamic societies on earth. And you will see Israeli technology and innovation which is fundamentally transforming the way we live.
Mr. President, Barack – on a lighter side, I had an opportunity to see your interview on Israeli television the other day. I took note of your desire to go incognito, so if you have a few free minutes, and you can arrange to slip away from your security – a daunting task – well, we picked out a few cafes and bars in Tel Aviv, and we even prepared a fake mustache for you…
“Mr. President, the people of Israel are honored to have you visit our country. We warmly welcome you as a cherished guest. We deeply appreciate your friendship. And we share your hope that the Middle East will enjoy a future of freedom, prosperity and peace.
“Baruch haba leYisrael — welcome to Israel,” Netanyahu concludes.
Obama in Hebrew: It’s good to be in the land again
Obama begins by noting this is his third visit to Israel, and so, he says in Hebrew, “Tov lihyot shuv ba’aretz” — it’s good to be in Israel again.
It’s no coincidence that he’s chosen to make Israel the first foreign destination in his second presidency, he says.
He immediately stresses the “rebirth” of Israel as the historic Jewish homeland. “The United States is proud to stand with you,” he says.
He speaks of “the winds of change” in the region, which “bring both promise and peril.” He says he sees opportunities on the visit, and highlights that the US and Israel “stand together because we share a common story” — share the goals of freedom, the tradition of bringing in immigrants from every corner of the world. “We stand together because we are democracies… the greatest form of government ever devised by man. Also “We stand together… because it makes us more prosperous… We share a commitment to helping human beings” around the world.
“We stand together because peace must come to the holy land,” he adds. “For even as we are clear-eyed about the difficulties, we will never lose sight of the vision of Israel at peace with its neighbors.”
The US “stands with Israel because it is in our fundamental security interest… It makes us both stronger… and it makes the world a better place… That’s why the United States was the very first nation” to recognize Israel 65 years ago.
The partnership between the two countries is eternal, Obama concludes.
Obama sees the Iron Dome missile defense system
Obama moves on to visit the Iron Dome anti-missile battery that has been set up at the airport.
“Where do you want to start?” he asks IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.
“Follow the red line,” says Gantz.
“You’ve done a great job,” the president tells officers near the missile system. “This is a state of the art, multi-level” system, the president is told — Iron Dome for short-range rockets, supplemented by David’s Sling, Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 missile defense systems.
He’s now being shown a short film on the high-tech missile defense developments, with simulations of the systems in action. Iron Dome, funded with a supplementary US budget, intercepted 84% of missiles — close to 500 in all — fired at residential Israel from Gaza in November, proving itself in combat.
What Obama said to Yair Lapid on his new political career: “My wife always says, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’”
Supreme Court president not on hand to greet Obama
Supreme Court President Asher Grunis was absent from the long line of dignitaries who welcomed President Obama upon his arrival to Israel.
As the US president landed at Ben Gurion International Airport, Grunis was in court hearing an appeal connected to the case of Shimon Cooper, who is accused of murdering his first and third wives.
Obama helicopters off to Jerusalem
The president is being introduced to the soldiers who staff Iron Dome.
He poses for a group photo, with the anti-missile battery in the background.
Obama looks relaxed; he and Netanyahu are chatting and smiling easily — best of friends.
He decides to walk back from the Iron Dome to his “Marine One” helicopter rather than drive the short distance. It’s hot, and he’s taken off his jacket.
The choppers gear up for takeoff, and Obama taxis away.
More on Obama-Lapid: You’ve taken on quite a job (as finance minister), the president said to Israel’s rising political star.
TV analysts are impressed by Obama’s references to 3,000 years of Jewish history here. Naftali Bennett has reportedly noted that Obama didn’t mention the Palestinians. (Of course, he will do that in Ramallah tomorrow.) Peres spoke of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu spoke of peace with the Palestinians. Obama spoke of peace in the Holy Land.
The presidential limo doesn’t run on diesel
More on that broken-down presidential limousine, which had to be replaced at short notice.
“The Americans filled it up with diesel, rather than petrol,” reports Channel 2 — stressing that it was the Americans, not the Israelis.
Unsurprisingly, the car wouldn’t start.
Did he have to come at Passover? In Jerusalem, locals grumble
ToI’s Raphael Ahren has been speaking to Jerusalemites as Obama heads their way:
“If it were up to me, he could stay home. He’s killing business for three days,” says Eitay, who works at the Avi Manko barbershop on Jerusalem’s Azza Street, meters away from the Prime Minister’s Residence. “I really couldn’t care less about this visit. So people say that he gives a lot of money to Israel, but he’s doing that only to get elected. We could always get the money elsewhere.”
His boss disagrees, kind of. “Maybe he’ll bring Pollard with him,” he says, referring to the American-Israeli spy serving a life sentence in a US prison. (Obama didn’t.)
“I don’t mind that he’s coming,” Manko adds, “but why does it have to be at Passover? It’s really bad for business.” Observant Jews usually get haircuts shortly before the holiday, as they refrain from doing so during the seven-week “Omer” period between Pessah and Shavuot.
On Hanassi Street, named after the Israeli presidents who officially reside there, traffic has come to a halt. Even before the police closed off the streets, few cars could be seen. Most people in the neighborhood planned in advance so as not to leave their houses too much while the president is in town. One pedestrian says her painting class was canceled today because of the prominent guest’s arrival.
A few steps further, at the “President’s Kiosk,” where foreign diplomats occasionally stop by to grab a last cup of coffee before their audiences with the president, business is good. “We’re very busy,” an employee says while handing some tomatoes to a customer. Inside the store, most of his clients are policemen and secret service staff getting a last snack.
Chana, who has lived for 45 years on the corner of Radak and Hanassi streets, right in front of the President’s Residence, says she has seen all previous visits by US presidents in Israel. “I’m happy that he’s coming, if he promotes good things” such as the peace process, she says. Will he be able to achieve anything? “I want to believe so,” she says. “I can only tell you what the political commentators say. That he’s neutral in the conflict, and of course we’d like him to be more on our side.”
Although she is generally positive about Obama, Chana points to a huge truck that US officials have parked right in front of her house. “Do you see the see the stinking fumes that come from the generator in the truck? It’s unbearable,” she complains.
Palestinians set up illegal outpost as protest
Some 500 Palestinian activists set up an illegal outpost in the controversial strip of land east of Jerusalem near Ma’ale Adumim known as E1.
Activists say that the establishment of the “Grandchildren of Yunis” outpost is a protest against the Obama administration, which they claim is traditionally biased in Israel’s favor. The outpost consists of 15 tents.
After the Palestinian Authority was granted nonmember observer status at the UN in late November, one of Israel’s responses was to revive its own plans to build in the E1 area, drawing harsh international condemnation. Critics say settlement construction there would make a contiguous Palestinian state nearly impossible.
Obama nears Jerusalem
Obama’s chopper is coming in to land at Jerusalem’s Givat Ram stadium.
Raphael Ahren: About 15,000 police officers – including 35 on horseback — are taking part in securing the president’s visit, manning hundreds of patrol cars, motorcycles and other vehicles. One thousand Israeli, US and Jerusalem flags have been hung around the capital to greet Obama and his 600-strong entourage.
Arab MK Tibi: Obama’s airport address was ‘a Zionist speech’
Obama has arrived in Jerusalem, and been driven to the King David Hotel for a short break before he heads to the President’s Residence at 4.
Arab MK Ahmad Tibi says Obama’s arrival address was “a Zionist speech.” He doesn’t mean it as a compliment.
“There’s no symmetry” in America’s relations with Israel and the Palestinians, he notes.
Tibi also protests the presence in the Israeli coalition of a party — Jewish Home — “with a veto” over any progress toward Palestinian statehood. But the root of the problem, Tibi says, is Netanyahu — “a principled right-winger,” who will never say the words “a sovereign Palestinian state.”
Tibi says Abbas will “absolutely” seek a settlement freeze when he meets Obama tomorrow.
Kerry snatches a bite at local Jerusalem cafe
While Obama was on his way to Jerusalem by air and the rest of the presidential entourage was making its way along Route 1, US Secretary of State John Kerry was having a bite to eat at a local Jerusalem cafe.
Kerry, who arrived in Israel yesterday, sat at Cafe Paradiso, not far from the King David Hotel where he and Obama are staying. We’re not quite sure what the US’s top diplomat was eating.
By the look of things, Kerry started his meal — let’s be diplomatic — immediately after the ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport.
More from Obama’s remarks on the VIP line: He told Livni he’s glad they’re going to be working together, told Public Security Minister Aharonovich he has “a very important job,” and told Amir Peretz, former defense minister, that he has “a bit more gray hair” than since they last met.
Obama to Lapid: You had a good job before you entered politics. Lapid: “A better job.”
Neturei Karta ultra-Orthodox extremists urge Obama to save the Jews from Zionism
Neturei Karta, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews who reject the State of Israel on religious grounds, is turning to Obama for help against the “evils of Zionism.”
In a letter addressed to “His Excellency the President and Friend of Peace and Justice Barack Hussein Obama” that is currently making the rounds on Twitter, the extreme anti-Zionist group urges the president to intervene on the behalf of Haredi Jews in Israel who fear the new government will force them to join the army.
“Orthodox Jewry wishes to honor his Excellency the President,” the letter reads, “and to beseech him to exert his influence to help Orthodox Jewry of the Holy Land and thus to save hundreds of thousands of Jews subjugated under the evils and iniquities of Zionism, which is uprooting religion in general, and forcing enlistment in the army in particular (the military being utterly at variance with authentic religion, justice, uprightness, and humanitarian ethics, which have ever been our liberation from the regime of atheistic Zionism).”
It is unlikely that planned legislation to do away with blanket draft exemptions for yeshiva students — a key element of the recently signed coalition agreements — will be high on the agenda during Obama’s working meetings with Netanyahu and Peres.
An Obama quip: When Air Force commander Amir Eshel referred to a “red line” during his explanation of the Iron Dome system, Obama reportedly fired back, “It’s all ‘red lines’ with you.” This was a jocular reference to Netanyahu’s dead serious talk of the need for a “red line” to make plain to Iran what action would trigger US-led intervention. (Times of Israel Liveblog disclaimer: The president’s red-line joke was reported by Army Radio, and is here translated back to English, via Army Radio Hebrew, from the original presidential English.)
While Obama takes a break at his hotel in Jerusalem, we’ll take one too, and close this liveblog. Pick us up in the next installment here.