For Israelis, Obama has finally arrived

President Obama hit all the right notes for winning over skeptical Israelis during his first state visit to the critical ally. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres are photographed through a window and the crowd as they are greeted by children waving Israeli and American flags upon their arrival at the Peres' residence, March 20, in Jerusalem.

Like Jerry McGuire, who won his wife back with a simple "hello," President Obama seemed to capture the hearts of Israelis with the first word of his speech upon touching down at Ben Gurion airport: Shalom.

As Obama moved into a carefully scripted speech that swept back millenniums to recognize Abraham and Sarah as the ancient claimants to the land of Israel, Amir Mizroch, editor of the English edition of Israel Hayom, tweeted: "Stop it, stop it, you had me at Shalom." 

 Obama even trotted out a bit of Hebrew, telling his listeners: tov l'hiyot shuv b'aretz – It's good to be back again in "the land," the colloquial term for Israel. It was the first clip played in an unusually long evening news program about his visit.

To be sure, there were hiccups as well. Obama's "beast," the super-duper secure limo that ferries him around even on foreign visits, broke down when someone – the Israelis insist it was the Americans – put in the wrong kind of gas. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's joke about preparing Obama a fake moustache so he could ditch his security people and secretly sample Tel Aviv's bars fell flat. And there were complaints that several ministers in the new government had asked Obama to free Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, to which he reportedly responded: "Nice to meet you," or "Nice to see you again."

Unlike a wedding, state visits have to be orchestrated without the benefit of the main actors rehearsing – and sometimes it shows. Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres, a Nobel laureate now in a largely ceremonial position, bumped into each other more than once as protocol officers pulled and prodded them into the proper formation and they tried to smoothly insert themselves into photo ops with cute kids waving the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes. 

But overall, Obama managed to sail right through the awkward moments and hit all the notes Israelis wanted to hear. He outlined his vision of a two-state solution as a strong Jewish state next to a sovereign Palestinian one, without mentioning anything about curbing Israeli settlements in the West Bank; promised continued foreign aid; insisted on calling Netanyahu by his nickname, Bibi; complimented his wife Sara, saying the Netanyahu boys must have gotten their good looks from her; and, in a more serious moment, recognized the sacrifice of Netanyahu's family, who lost his brother Yoni in the 1976 Entebbe operation to rescue more than 100 Israeli and Jewish passengers whose plane had been hijacked.

One senior Israeli official who was asked ahead of time about what Obama would have to do to make his visit a success, reportedly replied simply, "Land." Indeed, before Obama even addresses the Israeli public in a speech tomorrow; before he visits the Dead Sea Scrolls, thus implicitly acknowledging that Israel's right to exist here dates back thousands of years before the Holocaust; before he visits the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism ... in the eyes of many Israelis, his mission is already accomplished.

For the Palestinians, the feelings are quite the reverse. But more on that tomorrow.

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