Israelis have always had a fixation with anything American. I remember in the 80’s and 90’s, and even today to some extent, when an advertiser wanted a product to sell, the description “just like in America” would be added. To this day I still get ads on Yahoo suggesting I try my luck in the Green Card lottery, as if winning a Green Card would be the best thing ever to happen to me (forgive me for not sounding enthusiastic about a Green Card, but I already am a citizen). Israelis, when they get fed up with rising prices or with doing reserve duty in the army or with their political parties or with Netanyahu in particular, threaten to just pack up and go live in America. Some even follow through with that threat.
In the 80’s it was understandable. The standard of living was lower. Globalization hadn’t yet brought us McDonald’s and Starbuck’s and Dunkin’ Donuts (Starbuck’s and Dunkin Donuts have since closed down here). Many products which were easily found in an American supermarket were unheard of here. But in this day and age we really don’t have that much to be jealous about. In many aspects, our grass is greener. True, we still don’t have root beer, cream soda and Dunkin Donuts and we don’t have a subway, but believe it or not, prices of many things here are lower, our economy is in a much better shape, unemployment is low and we have more social rights.
Nevertheless, Obama’s visit to the Holy land was regarded as the coming of the Messiah, here to bestow world peace and prosperity upon us. Obama was the main headline here for the past week. In the media, he was referred to as “Hanassi” (“The President”). Not the American President, not President Obama, THE President. True, we have our own President, but this week, he was not The President, Obama was. When Obama made his speech before 3000 Israeli students on Thursday (March 21st), the main headline on Ynet, Israel’s most popular news site declared it as “An Historic Speech”- and that’s even before he opened his mouth.
So let me curb your enthusiasm there. Not everyone enjoyed Obama’s benevolent visit to bestow his charm upon us, poor, deprived, yet faithful subjects as much as those 3000 wildly cheering university students.
First of all, as Jerusalemites, we bore the brunt of the visit. For three days the city was locked down. Streets were closed, public transportation was running only part of the time, and when it was, busses were not going where they were supposed to, because “where they were supposed to” was blocked off. The streets were filled with police and helicopters were circling above for the entire three-day period, as well as a zeppelin. Route 1, the main highway between Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem was completely closed for an hour each time when Obama’s convoy of at least twenty-something cars went to and from the airport. My wife attempted to go to work on Thursday. She took a bus, which normally stops outside her office. The roads were closed and the bus made a detour, so she got off and tried to walk. And then the police told her she couldn’t go through, even on foot. They told her she had to walk all the way around- another half-hour detour. Eventually, after complaining, one of the policemen agreed to take her to work in his police car.
The newly formed government tried to frame the visit as an important visit from our closest ally, but one cannot help but wonder why Obama chose to come to Israel only two days after the Israeli government was sworn into office. What could he possibly achieve, while meeting with ministers who just found out what their new positions are two days ago and barely know their jobs?
No, this was not the super friendly visit everyone made it out to be. This was Obama flexing his muscles and showing the new Israeli leadership the shape of things to come. Obama chose not to address the Knesset, Israel’s newly elected parliament. Instead, he chose to make his central speech before three thousand university students. These university students were supposedly chosen by lottery, but from what I hear, and more importantly, from what can be seen on the video of the speech, they were handpicked by the local American embassy, in order to insure maximum support for what Obama had to say. For example, students from the Ariel University, a university on the “wrong” side of the Green Line were excluded.
During the speech, an Israeli-Arab student stood up and shouted slogans against Israel’s so-called occupation of Judea and Samaria and the US’s support for Israel. Obama kept his cool and responded to this by saying that they had actually arranged for this, because he wouldn’t have felt at home without at least one heckler in the crowd. But Obama couldn’t have had an easier crowd. He spoke of America’s support of Israel. He spoke of the need for peace. He received loud applause for both these issues. He did well by inserting Hebrew phrases and cultural references which awarded him with more applause. But the loudest applause came when he spoke of the need for Israel to remove settlements in order to form a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. Had he been speaking before the Knesset he would not have received such loud applause- less than half the Knesset supports removing settlements. Had he been speaking before a balanced representative sample of students he would not have received such loud applause. The issue of settlements is one of the most controversial issues in Israeli society.
Obama called on the students to go out and put pressure on their government to stop settlement activity. His audience was made up of the same population group as the people who ran the Leftist social protest two summers ago. If this is not what meddling in other countries’ politics is about, I don’t know what is. Obama’s message to Israeli leaders was clear: I don’t care that Israel has just elected a right wing government. I have a plan for the Middle East- you can either go along with it, or I will go above your heads and push your people to force you to go along with it. Never mind that the Israeli leadership was elected by the people.
The Israeli enthusiasm was mostly on the Left. Obama is viewed as the representative of the United States and its culture, but he is also viewed by the Israeli Left as the ultimate weapon to use against a Prime Minister whom they failed to remove from office. They protest, they vote, but if all else fails: bring outside pressure to force the right wing government to enact left wing policy. Obama is the Left’s savior.
On Friday afternoon as Obama’s visit was drawing to a close, a sudden sandstorm blew over Jerusalem, turning the air yellow and dusty, forcing the leader of the free world to travel to Bethlehem by car rather than by helicopter. A small symbolic event, showing that in the Land of Israel there are some things that even the President of the United States cannot control.
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