SDEROT, Israel — As Barack Obama’s plane took off from Ben Gurion Airport for Germany early Thursday, Israelis were opening up the morning newspaper to a center spread’s worth of photos and quotes tailored to the local political palate.
In Jerusalem strolling arm and arm with Shimon Peres at his presidential villa. In a yarmulke next to the Western Wall. In southern Israel, looking up in awe at a smiling 10-year-old leg amputee from a Qassam rocket.
Just a few weeks ago, many Israelis fretted about the prospect of a Barack Obama presidency because he was a foreign policy unknown with Muslim lineage. But by the end of a 24 hours overloaded with meetings and photo ops, the political consensus in Israel seemed to be that there was an unmistakable, if incremental, shift.
“Now after this visit, if Obama were to be elected president, most Israelis wouldn’t consider it to be a disaster,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “Compared to Bush, Obama comes across as incredibly intelligent and someone who can fix America and its foreign policies. And Israelis respond to that favorably.”
Despite the general international enthusiasm for an Obama presidency, until this week Israel had been one of the only countries seemingly indifferent to his sweeping appeal. Even after the Illinois senator’s primary-election victory over the popular Hillary Clinton, a June opinion poll for the right-wing weekly paper Mekor Rishon showed a 36 percent to 27 percent preference among Israelis for John McCain.
But Israelis, like the multitudes in Germany a day later, were swept up and away by the Obama visit. The Sderot municipality, which has played host to a laundry list of foreign dignitaries including Senator McCain, for the first time hung the Stars and Stripes alongside the Israeli flag from lampposts on the city’s gateway boulevard in Obama’s honor.
“What’s the big deal?” one policeman asked an event organizer. “It wasn’t even like this when Bush came.”
The visit was part of a process in which the Israeli public has moved from viewing Obama as a strange phenomenon to the possible (or even probably) next president, said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli Consul General in New York.
“People who had no reason to be apprehensive but nonetheless did so are now feeling more comfortable with him,” he said.
“There’s a ricochet effect,” he continued. “The more people are talking about him winning, the more Israelis are adapting him. We like who the Americans like.”
That said, Pinkas added, “People still don’t don’t know anything about him, let’s be honest, but he said more in 24 hours here than [foreign minister] Tzippi Livni.”
It helped that the Obama one-day itinerary maxed out the number of stops and meetings while keeping the give-and-take with the press corps to a minimum. There was a big helping of symbolism (a memorial ceremony at Yad Vashem, a courtesy call to Ramallah’s Muqaata presidential compound, a destroyed house in Sderot), and a light dose of substance.
“What can you do? The man is charismatic,” said Gadi Wolsfeld, an expert on political communications at Hebrew University. “We’re not talking about intensive negotiations over the return of Jerusalem. It was a ceremonial visit to Yad Vahsem. How much dirt could you find in that?”
There was ample meet-and-greet with Israel’s political elite, a laundry list of cabinet members, ex-prime minister and mayors who all seemed only too happy to hitch themselves to the ascendant political star.
“Nearly everyone who met Barack Obama —in the hotel, at the Foreign Ministry, at the President’s Residence, in Sderot—was convinced: He is going to be the next president of the United States. His charismatic personality and chumminess fit the Israelis like a glove, and were reminiscent of the love affair between the Israelis and Bill Clinton,” wrote by Itamar Eichner in the daily Yediot Ahronot.
What Obama got in return was a compelling backdrop to hammer anew at pronouncements on his commitment to Israeli security, the special nature of bilateral relations with the U.S., and his plans to hit the ground running with Israeli-Arab peace talks (a not-so-subtle jab at the Bush administration, which has been criticized for ignoring the peace process until his last year.)
When he did open up the floor to the press (leaving time for four journalists to ask questions), he addressed his flub about an undivided Jerusalem at a recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering; justified Israel’s retaliation for the rockets on Sderot; and sidestepped the “hypothetical” questions about an Israeli attack on Iran.
Noting that the answers were mainly for American Jewish consumption back home, even Israel’s hypercritical media could find no miscues.
“For every fear, query or question, Obama immediately produced a suitable Zionist sentence,” Eichner continued. “About Jerusalem he said that it would be Jerusalem’s capital forever, and that he was against partitioning it. About Iran: A nuclear Iran is unacceptable. … About the Palestinians: The negotiations should move forward, but the US will not pressure Israel so as to jeopardize its security.”
Sderot, a depressed working-class town disillusioned from politics after eight years of rocket fire, has taken its place alongside the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum as an obligatory stop for visiting politicians and diplomats.
The commercial center outside of the Sderot municipality is in a state of decay save for the shiny fishbowl glass facade of the Sderot Media Center, a public relations outfit set up to report on the town’s suffering under the rocket attacks from Gaza.
One storefront down, Sderot locals said that the senator’s outsider image touched a meaningful chord in the town, which is home to many working-class immigrants and sees itself marginalized geographically, economically and ethnically from mainstream Israel.
“He knows what pain and distress is,” said Yaffa Malka, 44, the bleach-blond owner of the New Age Salon, who admitted to having a crush on the senator. “Those from above don’t know about that.”
Nissim Keinan, a reporter for Israel Radio who covers the Israeli towns and kibbutzim around the Gaza Strip, said that Sderot residents identify with Obama rather than McCain because they see the former as an underdog and the latter as an elite. “They say, ‘He’s like us.”’
A few hundred yards away at the Sderot police station, the afternoon desert sun beat down on the rear parking lot where Obama held a press conference with a wall of rusted rockets to his rear. A wilted campaign advance team handler barked orders at a pack of excited Israeli cameraman trying to enter the closed press conference.
Obama’s team stuck assiduously to their tightly crafted itinerary despite having to fend off insistent requests to tack on briefings and tours by Israel’s police, the municipality, and the Foreign Ministry.
Interestingly, there was some criticism from Obama in the Israeli peace camp, which apparently had hoped to hear more about the peace process beyond the senator’s apologetic defense of his support of an immediate resumption of talks.
“The hope is that Obama left Jerusalem and Ramallah with a deeper understanding of the need to shelve the flowery statements that his Jewish affairs advisors had devised for him, if he is to truly be ‘a friend of Israel,’” the dovish Ha’aretz newspaper wrote in an editorial.
“To survive as a Jewish and democratic state, Israel needs an American leader who does not fear the reaction of American Jews and non-Jews who do not believe in dividing the land to reconcile its two peoples.”
And even though his visit was rapturously received, the one thing it didn’t – and probably couldn’t – resolve were the questions about what he’d actually do once he got into office.
”The question is how much of this is someone who is a very good actor, and a very good speaker,” said Bar Ilan Univesity’s Steinberg. “He’s everybody’s friend. It doesn’t tell us anything about policies, for good or for bad. He’s just a very good politician.”