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Suits, flags, and colorful hats: Obama comes to Israel

Hordes of reporters were on hand to watch the US president arrive on his first official visit to Israel

Israeli delegates line up to greet US President Barack Obama on Wednesday, March 20 (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
Israeli delegates line up to greet US President Barack Obama on Wednesday, March 20 (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

The United States was in full imperial power-projection mode Wednesday at Ben-Gurion Airport, where a throng of several hundred reporters, photographers, cameramen and diplomatic officials spent hours awaiting the arrival of President Barack Obama.

No fewer than eight dull-green US Army Black Hawks idled on the tarmac like chicks awaiting the mother bird — in this case the giant blue-and-white 747 winging just then toward Tel Aviv, carrying Obama on his first official visit to Israel. American and Israeli flags adorned the section of runway fenced off for his arrival. Also installed at strategic intervals were blue-jacketed Secret Service men in sunglasses. Packs of silver and black American SUVs were in evidence by Tuesday evening on the streets of Jerusalem.

US Black Hawk helicopters at the airport (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
US Black Hawk helicopters at the airport (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

The buzz increased as the hour of Obama’s arrival approached. When Air Force One finally landed, photographers with zoom lenses followed its progress to the red carpet laid on the asphalt, lined with rows of IDF soldiers in their neatest uniforms and on their best behavior.

No matter how straight they stood, however, they could not obscure a fact made obvious by the military personnel present on the runway: Israeli soldiers may or may not be as good as their American counterparts, but they are undoubtedly shorter.

Given the millions of dollars spent on the visit, the build-up, the thousands of security personnel deployed around the airport, and the military band, what followed came as something of an anticlimax. The figure who descended from the giant airplane, all smiles, was still just a man in a suit.

The receiving line included a few American ladies in power outfits and carefully arranged Beltway hairdos, Cabinet ministers, and local religious dignitaries in a colorful collection of hats and costumes — an Armenian in a pointed black hood, a Catholic in a pink robe, and a man in an unseasonal fur hat who might have been Circassian; no one seemed quite sure. Obama and Netanyahu smiled at each other and shared a few jokes. In case anyone was wondering, they are best friends.

President Shimon Peres delivered the requisite speech praising America and the strength of its support for Israel. Netanyahu did the same, and also made a weak stab at humor — referring to a comment Obama made last week about wanting to walk around Israel incognito, he said the government had already “picked out a few restaurants and bars in Tel Aviv for you, and we even have a fake mustache.”

Obama wasted no time in referring to “3,000 years” of Jewish history in Israel, and the Jewish “dream of the ages” to return to Zion. This seemed aimed at correcting the nuances of the Cairo speech he made in his first term, which drew criticism from some in Israel because it suggested Israel’s right to exist was due mainly to the Holocaust.

He threw in some Hebrew — Tov le’hiyot shuv ba’aretz, he said, It’s good to be back in Israel. It was a crowd-pleaser.

US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pose with military personnel next to a battery of Iron Dome on March 20 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon /GPO/ Flash90)
US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pose with military personnel next to a battery of Iron Dome on March 20 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon /GPO/ Flash90)

After a brief visit to an Iron Dome battery set up nearby for his benefit, Obama was rushed to a presidential chopper. Workers began cleaning up the water bottles and sandwich wrappers left behind by the hordes of reporters. The Black Hawks roared and taxied and lifted off toward Jerusalem.

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