There were hugs and smiles at Ben-Gurion Airport today as President Barack Obama arrived on a three-day visit to Israel to “reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our two nations.”
“We share a common story,” Obama added in brief remarks on the airport tarmac as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres stood beside him.
Netanyahu thanked Obama for American military aid, defending Israel at the United Nations and for the “unbreakable U.S. bond.”
Peres echoed that theme, telling Obama: “Your visit here is a demonstration of the profound relationship between our two countries.”
It was Obama’s first overseas visit in his second term and it came just one day after Netanyahu was sworn in for his third term. It was Obama’s third visit to Israel, the last while he was a candidate for president, and he reminded his audience of that when he said in Hebrew, “It’s good to be back in the land of Israel.”
The trip is seen as largely ceremonial and both the White House and the Israeli government have said not to expect any new Palestinian peace initiatives.
After greeting various dignitaries and religious leaders on a lengthy receiving line, Netanyahu greeted the American delegation that accompanied Obama on Air Force One, which included Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx, Westchester).
“It was a very moving ceremony,” Engel told The Jewish Week Wednesday. “Coming off the plane with the red carpets, the Israeli and American flags flying all over the place, soldiers and the military people, the band playing — it was very moving to hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and then ‘Hatikvah.’”
He said he believed all three men “gave very moving speeches.”
“Obama used the term, ‘the Jewish state of Israel,’ which I was hoping to hear him say and he said it right off the bat,” Engel pointed out. “He also talked of the Jewish ties to the land of Israel going back to biblical times, and many times he talked about the unbreakable ties between the U.S. and Israel. I thought his words couldn’t be better.”
Obama had been criticized for giving a speech at the United Nations that suggested to some that he was saying Israel was established because of the attempted extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust — without any mention of its biblical roots.
“I thought Peres and Netanyahu were gracious and spoke glowingly of the U.S.-Israel relationship, that the U.S. was the first country to recognize Israel when it declared statehood 65 years ago,” Engel said. “It was a very moving experience to be there.”
Asked about the low expectations for the trip and the fact that it is seen as mostly ceremonial, Engel replied:
“I think sometimes ceremonies are very important because they reaffirm ties, and that is what the president is doing — and he is sending a message to Iran, to the Arab world, to Europe and frankly to the whole world. I think that is important. He is going to Israel and Jordan, not to Jordan and Israel. Israel is the first country he visits after having been re-elected.”
Nevertheless, Engel said he is not ready to write off the trip in terms of it producing constructive results.
“The only way you can have a two-state solution is by having the two sides sitting around the negotiating table and talking. The Israelis are willing to do it and the Palestinians are refusing and placing all these ridiculous preconditions that Israel cannot accept. They are talking about Israel returning to its ’67 lines and halting new settlements — these are not items you concede at the beginning as a precondition to even sitting down and talking. These are final items that are negotiated and hammered out. The Palestinians have not shown they are serious. But if the president’s trip sparks a kind of excitement and causes face-to-face negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians — which Israelis want — that would be a good thing. We have to wait and see.”
Before a series of bilateral meetings with Peres and Netanyahu, Obama’s motorcade took him to his hotel, the King David, to allow him to freshen up. There were sparse crowds but several groups of people holding up placards urging Obama to grant a pardon to Jonathan Pollard, who is now in the 28th year of a life sentence for spying for Israel. One sign read, “Yes, you can.”
Last week, Obama said he has no plans to free Pollard. But Obama will reportedly be handed a petition signed by 200,000 Israelis asking him to change his mind.
“Israel is a democracy,” Engel said of the pro-Obama effort. “That is another reason we have such strong ties. I’m sure the president will take everything in stride.”