JERUSALEM – “He had us at the word ‘Shalom,’” wrote Jerusalem Post political analyst Herb Keinon of President Barack Obama’s arrival speech at Ben-Gurion Airport Wednesday.
Shalom happened to be the first word Obama spoke on Israeli soil as president, but all of the words that came afterwards only increased enthusiasm for him among Israeli reporters and commentators—an enthusiasm they found astonishing.
Obama was regarded by most of the Israeli media and public as distant, emotionally indifferent, and a grudging ally during his first term despite the financial and political assistance his administration bestowed on Israel. His tense, dour relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to extend to Israel itself.
However, his arrival speech, sprinkled with Hebrew phrases and lavish praise of the Jewish state and delivered with a friendly demeanor Israelis had not seen before, quickly won them over.
“Apparently we need a presidential visit from time to time to remind us how provincial we are,” wrote Sima Kadmon, a senior political writer for Yediot Ahronot. “A bit of informality, a few jokes, a few words in Hebrew, and we’re flooded with love for someone who suddenly seems as if he likes us.”
Kadmon and her fellow journalists had not abandoned their critical distance entirely. “Obama is here to win trust,” she wrote. “If he wants to pressure Netanyahu into a peace process, nothing will happen without trust.”
However, she permitted herself to refer to the American president with the broad smile as “a hunk.” Ma’ariv newspaper noted that differences still existed between the two leaders about the Palestinian issue and when the “red line” with Iran would be crossed, possibly triggering military action against its nuclear facilities.
Although in the past Obama had referred to Israel’s establishment largely in the context of the Holocaust, as a place of refuge, this time, he repeatedly made reference to Israel’s ancient roots in the land and its Biblical heritage.
“We heard those words,” wrote Keinon. “Our enemies heard those words.”
Writing in Ma’ariv, Ben-Dror Yamini said that Obama had won Israel’s trust by not choosing to hector it about West Bank settlements as he often did in the past, even though he has plainly not abandoned his views about their negative effect.
“Peace is psychological, a matter of trust,” wrote Yamini. “It’s not clear whether there’s any chance [for advancing the peace process with the Palestinians] but what is clear is that only an American president and administration regarded as friends can accomplish something.”
Keinon noted that during Obama’s first term the president seemed to feel the need to avoid embracing Israel and demonstrate even-handedness if he wished to promote regional peace. This attitude increased Israel’s sense of isolation.
“We want to be accepted, so want to be loved,” Keinon wrote. “Obama landed and showed us love.”