Op-Ed: How the Man-in-the-Street Saw Obama's Visit
Now that US President Barack Obama has returned to America following his first Presidential visit to Israel, life in Israel appears to return to a pre-Passover frenetic normalcy. If you were not in Israel for that visit, you might have missed some of the action. Here’s an Israeli view of that trip:
Beginning Tuesday afternoon March 19, 2013, the day before Obama landed, Israel Highway 1 from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem was intermittently blocked off to accommodate US Secretary of State John Kerry’s motorcade, Kerry having arrived that day.
Highway 1 is the major travel route for those who live in Central Israel and work in Tel Aviv. It’s one of Israel’s most heavily used roads. Fortunately, it was not blocked for as long as had been announced.
Next day, Wednesday, traffic disruptions continued on Highway 1 for several hours, to accommodate the arriving motorcade for the President and his entourage.
In Jerusalem, several major streets in city-center were to be closed off to both traffic and parking from Wednesday morning to Friday afternoon. Light-rail transport was to be stopped intermittently between Wednesday and Friday. City-wide bus traffic would also be disrupted, re-routed, often halted.
The police created a public hotline for information on traffic disruptions.
Also on Wednesday, it was announced that portions of Highway 60—from Jerusalem to Bethlehem--were scheduled to close Friday to all traffic. The Highway was to become ‘sterile’ for a motorcade to Bethlehem for a brief stop. No vehicles were to be permitted. That included ambulances. Emergency service would have to be provided by helicopter.
Meanwhile, Arabs in Bethlehem started demonstrating early against the President, on Monday, two days before his arrival. They threw shoes and garbage at an American ‘advance’ team that had entered Bethlehem to prepare sites and confirm security. Demonstrators defaced and destroyed Obama posters.
Over 1,000 journalists came to Israel to cover the visit. The President's entourage brought another 600.
Still on Wednesday, the official Palestinian Authority news outlet published an editorial blaming America for the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center.
Jewish residents of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter complained bitterly that security arrangements for President Obama were putting them into a ‘siege’ situation. Food, which is delivered daily, would now be hard to find. Residents were told that there would be no deliveries into the Quarter for any items for the rest of the week, Wednesday through Friday. Passover preparations were going to be severely disrupted. Shabbat preparations would be nearly impossible to complete.
Residents were not amused.
Former POW captive Gilad Shalit wrote a publicized letter to President Obama calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard, whose stay in a US prison was approaching 10,000 days.
Wednesday was the big day--the President landed at Ben Gurion Airport—and got stuck. The limousine brought to transport him would not start. Someone had filled the gas tank with the wrong fuel, putting diesel in instead of gas (or the other way around; reports weren’t clear).
When Mr Obama shook hands with Israeli officials upon his arrival, two Members of Knesset spoke to him, asking that he free Jonathan Pollard. He was reported to have replied to one of them saying, ‘nice to meet you.’
That afternoon, a community in Judea announced that a neighbourhood would be named after Jonathan Pollard.
The women of the Rachel’s Tomb Foundation wrote a letter to Mr Obama asking him to release Jonathan Pollard.
As the President’s motorcade entered Jerusalem, signs captioned, ‘Welcome Mr President. Please Free Jonathan Pollard’ lined a portion of his route.
Israel President Shimon Peres asked President Obama to pardon Jonathan Pollard.
On Thursday, prominent Rabbis marched in Jerusalem with the intent to ask President Obama to pardon Jonathan Pollard in time for Passover.
On Thursday, Arabs in Gaza fired rockets into Israel.
Arabs in Ramallah protested Obama’s arrival there to meet with Mahmoud Abbas. The demonstrations were kept several blocks from the meeting place. The Palestinian Authority announced that it would impose a 'curfew' in Ramallah for the President’s visit.
Also Thursday, Arab lawyers announced that they would file a request with the Palestinian Authority prosecutor-general demanding that the US President be arrested during his stay in Ramallah because of the US army’s responsibility for the death of a Palestinian journalist in Iraq, in 2003, some five years before Mr Obama became US President.
An Arab speaker told a crowd of protesters in gathered in Ramallah that, ‘the US and Obama were the number one enemy of Islam and Muslims.’
In Gaza, protesters set fire to US and Israeli flags. Signs at the protest called Obama the ‘Hitler of the 21st Century’.
In Iran, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei chose this day to announce that the Islamic Republic of Iran would destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa if Israel attacked it.
In Hevron, leftists from Europe joined Arab demonstrators to attack Israeli security personnel. Police arrested several Arabs and deported the leftists.
In Thursday’s speeches in Ramallah and Jerusalem, Obama said that Jewish settlements in Judea-Samaria were an obstacle to peace; the only way Israel can thrive as a Jewish democracy was to recognize ‘the state of Palestine’; Palestine deserves to be a state; peace is possible; Israel can negotiate with people who are dedicated to its destruction; Mahmoud Abbas is a partner for peace.
In Bethlehem, just meters away from the Church that Mr Obama was scheduled to visit, a Muslim cleric declared that ‘the US is Satan and Obama is its head."
At his Thursday speech in Jerusalem, Mr Obama was interrupted by a heckler. Reuters news service reported that the heckler shouted at the President ‘in Hebrew’. Israel news interviewed the heckler, who turned out to be an Arab who termed Obama’s speech ‘extremist and Zionist.’ Reuters neglected to mention that.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace activists climbed a bridge in Jerusalem to protest US drilling in the Arctic.
On Friday, Mr Obama went to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. There, he said that Israel exists to make sure the Holocaust does not happen again. He was then scheduled to fly by US helicopter to Bethlehem while others in his entourage would motorcade through the 'sterile' Highway 60. But an intense sandstorm had arrived and had blotted out heaven and earth. The Presidential helicopter was grounded.
The President had to ride a hostile gauntlet through clusters of Arab protesters holding signs, the most creative of which said, 'Gringo, return to your colony.'
Friday’s plan to hold a departing ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport was also cancelled: the sandstorm was too strong. Then the media tent at the Airport collapsed from high winds.
In Bethlehem, just meters away from the Church that Mr Obama was scheduled to visit, a Muslim cleric declared that ‘the US is Satan and Obama is its head.’ Crowd control just before Obama arrived began to ‘get ugly’.
Friday, an Israeli tourist travelling in the Sinai Peninsula (against official Israeli warnings) was kidnapped at gunpoint by armed Bedouins. The Israeli was an Israeli Arab. He was still kidnapped.
The Voice of Palestine made almost no mention of Obama at all, playing nationalistic songs instead.
So it is that, as a Biblical-like sandstorm blotted out reality, US President Barack Obama left Israel Friday afternoon. Now, we turn to our Jewish Passover, which begins in a few hours. Perhaps, as we celebrate our First Redemption and think about the ten plagues of ancient Egypt, we can also discuss the question, was Friday’s blinding sand-storm a Divine message--or reaction--to Mr. Obama?