Clanging Symbols: Obama’s 50 Hours in Israel

by Marsha B. Cohen

US President Barack Obama has arrived in Israel.

Greeted by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu (who wore a blue tie that almost exactly matched Obama’s), the US president was quickly ushered to view an Iron Dome battery set up at the airport. When asked by a security coordinator to follow a red line leading from the tarmac to view an on-site video about how the anti-rocket system works, Obama reportedly quipped, “Bibi always tells me about red lines.” During a photo with the Iron Dome crew — its development generously funded by the US — Obama said, “All of you are doing an outstanding job. We’re very proud of you.”

For those wanting to follow Obama’s trip, tweets by veteran Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev are faster, much more informative — and a lot more fun — than the official media coverage. The international press corps of 500 is meanwhile awaiting even the hint of script-deviation like starving feral felines. As one Shalev tweet put it, “On both Israeli and US networks, Obama critics out in force to make sure he doesn’t leave too good an impression.”

One way to do this is by framing Obama’s trip to Israel as a sincere, half-hearted or futile attempt to make amends for appearing to have slighted or offended Israelis for not visiting sooner. Few could guess that Obama is only the fifth of the twelve sitting US presidents since 1948 — the year Israel was recognized by the United Nations as a state — to visit Israel while in office, as the Jerusalem Post points out. Richard Nixon dropped by in June 1974, a mere 55 days before his resignation from the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Jimmy Carter came to promote the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979. For his trouble, Carter became the least popular and most reviled American president among Israelis, while Nixon — for reasons that would seem bizarre to most Americans — is recalled fondly. Bill Clinton made three trips to Israel during his first term and one during his second. George W. Bush, on the other hand, waited until he was practically out of office to make two visits in 2008.

Beyond providing fodder for Fox News (which is polling its viewers as to whether or not Obama’s lighthearted comment “It’s good to get away from Congress!” was, in Steve Doocy’s words, a gaffe or a laugh), today’s itinerary has mainly involved photo ops and platitudes. Obama’s arrival speech affirmed that the Israel-US relationship is not only strong, it’s unshakeable, and that’s because it’s based upon “shared democratic values” and the mutual desire for peace and justice in the world. This sentiment will doubtlessly be the dominant theme in the president’s speech at the International Convention Center.

The itinerary for the second and third days of Obama’s Israel trip has been carefully crafted by his Israeli hosts in consultation with “American Jewish leaders”, designed to affirm the national narrative of the Jewish state at the most sacred shrines of Israel’s civil religion, defined by Myron J. Aronoff  as “a special type of dominant ideological superstructure which is rooted in religion and which incorporates significant elements of religious symbol, myth and ritual that are used selectively.”  The Iron Dome system is not merely a high-tech device resembling a tilted crate that can intercept incoming rockets. Its component for intercepting larger missiles, referred to as the “Magic Wand,” is known in Israel as “David’s sling.” According to its civil religion, Israel — the fifth or sixth largest arms dealer in the world and the recipient of 60% of all US foreign military assistance — views itself as the young shepherd boy David, deftly wielding his slingshot against the Philistine giant Goliath. Iron Dome (kipat barzel in Hebrew–literally “iron skullcap”) fuses myths of the biblical past with the high-tech present.

On the second day of his visit, Obama will tour the Israel Museum, guardian of the evidence upon which Israel’s eternal and inalienable right to the strategic sliver of territory between the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas is predicated. Never mind that it has changed hands dozens of times during the past 5,000 years, belonging for centuries at a time to various empires: Egyptian; Assyrian; Babylonian; Persian; Greco-Macedonian; Roman; Byzantine; Arab and Turkish. Three to four thousand years ago, the aboriginal Canaanite population was colonized by Arameans and Hyksos, Phoenicians and Philistines. But according to the Israel Museum, in the past, present and future there is only one people that matters — those whose mythic claim to the land is unequivocally affirmed by the texts that are protected within the innermost sanctum of the Shrine of the Book.

At that same museum Obama will be shown a 50:1 scale model reconstruction of the “Second Temple Jerusalem,” a first century Roman city whose construction began during the reign of Herod. The construction of the Temple itself was completed in 53 CE, five decades after Herod’s death and only seven years before its destruction by Roman legions in the wake of a violent civil war among Jewish factions who were fighting one another within the supposedly sacred precinct. Finally, it’s anticipated that Obama will view an exhibit of Israel’s successes as an ultramodern powerhouse at the forefront of scientific achievement.

Obama will also meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Allowing Abbas to meet with Obama anywhere within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem — which have tripled since the initial “reunification” of the city in 1967 — might constitute an admission that Palestinians have a claim to Jerusalem, and that cannot be allowed. The distance between Ramallah and the northernmost “neighborhoods” within the boundaries of “united Jerusalem” is just a few miles.

On his last day in Jerusalem, Obama will lay wreaths in memory of Holocaust victims at Yad Vashem and at the the grave of the “father of political Zionism,” Theodor Herzl. Obama will also lay a wreath at the gravestone of former Labor party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was murdered in 1995 by Yigal Amir, a religious Jewish nationalist. Sentenced to life in prison plus six years, Amir was allowed to marry, and after a failed attempt to smuggle out his sperm in order to impregnate his bride, was granted conjugal visits. A circumcision ceremony for his son was held at the prison on the anniversary (according to the secular calendar) of Rabin’s assassination. No longer in solitary confinement, Amir is a popular figure among members of the Israeli right, which have been urging for several years that Amir be released from prison.

To the sounds of these clanging and clashing symbols, Barack Obama becomes the fifth sitting US president to visit Israel.

Photo: President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel talk before their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, March 5, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) 

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.