When President Obama touched down today in Israel, he sounded like something out of a commercial for Israeli tourism. In front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, the president said the Hebrew phrase “Tov lihiyot shuv ba'aretz,” which translates into “It’s good to be back in the land of Israel.”
After stressing that the U.S.-Israel alliance makes the world better, both countries stronger, and both countries more prosperous, Obama said their strong bond was “why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today. And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever.”
The two flags flying into one another was a logo in recent years for annual conferences of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group. Now it’s the logo for Obama’s first visit as president to the world’s only Jewish state. The signs have popped up all over Jerusalem under the slogan “unbreakable alliance.”
The Israeli embassy in Washington even produced a 53-second YouTube video for the visit that features talking heads of Obama and Netanyahu at podiums. The second half of the video is scored with the song “Thank You for Being a Friend,” the theme of the U.S. television series, The Golden Girls.
At Ben Gurion airport, an Israeli military honor guard greeted Obama and a band played the U.S. and Israeli national anthems. A set of bleachers set up for the ceremony was lined with U.S. and Israeli flags, and decked with red, white, and purple flowers, according to a pool report from the White House press corps.
Jerusalem is abuzz in anticipation, with Israeli police at nearly every corner sporting green berets and bright yellow reflective vests. Many streets are closed in advance of the president’s motorcade. In some ways, the city of gold feels like a city under siege.
The visit from Obama is in many ways a reset in his relationship with Netanyahu. In their first terms as leaders, Obama and Netanyahu at times showed visible anger toward each other. In 2010, for instance, Obama instructed then–secretary of State Hillary Clinton to browbeat Netanyahu after his interior ministry announced the construction of 1,600 apartment units in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel. (This time around, Netanyahu has quietly asked the Jerusalem city government and other ministries to refrain from any housing announcements before and during Obama’s visit.)
The browbeating went both ways. In a 2011 visit to Washington, Netanyahu scolded Obama at a joint press conference, lecturing the U.S. president on Israel’s unique security needs.
Today, each side is turning up the charm. Peres, the Israeli president who shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with the late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat for their work during the Oslo peace negotiations, told Obama at his arrival ceremony: “We welcome you as a remarkable president.” Netanyahu even joked with Obama that he has picked out a few bars in Tel Aviv for him to visit, a reference to Obama’s remarks last week in an interview with an Israeli news channel in which he said he wished he could don a disguise and enjoy cafés in the coastal Israeli city.
To underscore the close bond between the two countries, Obama’s first stop after the opening ceremony was to a nearby airport hangar to see the Iron Dome rocket-defense battery. In 2010, Obama signed legislation that gave Israel $205 million to purchase batteries for the system. The Iron Dome was widely credited with intercepting short-range rockets fired from Gaza during the brief war in November between Israel and Hamas.