Watching President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday, one would never have known that the two world leaders had ever had a disagreement in their lives.
Obama and Netanyahu — whose animosity has been widely documented — were all smiles on the first day of the President’s visit to Israel, his first since taking office in 2008. The pair joked around on the tarmac after Obama’s arrive, flattered one another at a press conference later in the day, called each other “Bibi” and “Barack,” and even teamed up to tease MSNBC reporter Chuck Todd for asking too many questions.
“I think that people should get to know President Obama the way I’ve gotten to know [him],” Netanyahu told reporters. “Well, for this, you need, you see, a second term as President and a third term as Prime Minister.”
This congenial, even warm, banter is a marked shift from the fraught tensions of Obama’s first term, signaling the beginning of a thaw in the President’s icy relationship with the Israeli people and their prime minister.
The rift between Obama and Netanyahu has been well-documented, beginning with Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo. The President’s public demand that Israel halt settlement development — combined with his decision not to stop in Israel during his trip to the Middle East — led to the perception among Israelis that Obama does not fully understand or appreciate the country’s biblical roots or security concerns — and by extension, its reason for existence.
Fairly or unfairly, that scepticism was fuelled by Republicans — and Netanyahu himself —during Obama’s first term. The Israeli Prime Minister even stopped just short of endorsing Obama’s opponent in the 2012 election, fueling rumours that the President had blown him off to appear on The View.
Obama’s trip to Israel is an attempt to reset that relationship. Unlike past presidential trips to Israel, Obama’s visit is not expected to make any substantial progress on security issues or Middle East peace talks — instead the White House is emphasising the public outreach element of the trip, billing it as Obama’s opportunity to “talk directly to the Israeli people.” Atlantic correspondent and leading Israeli analyst Jeffrey Goldberg has dubbed the trip “Operation Desert Schmooze.”
To that end, the cornerstone of Obama’s visit will be his speech to young Israelis in Jerusalem today. But if Wednesday’s showing was any indication, the President’s charm offensive is already succeeding.
Here’s an excerpt from his arrival speech at Ben Gurion airport yesterday:
I’m so honored to be here as you prepare to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a free and independent State of Israel. Yet I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people.
More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.
Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be “masters of their own fate” in “their own sovereign state.” And just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.
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