President Obama delivers his opening speech at Ben Gurion while Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu look on (Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)
President Barack Obama received a hearty welcome from his Israeli hosts this afternoon as Air Force One touched down in Ben-Gurion Airport for an official ceremony that saw the president and prime minister of Israel praise America’s commitment to the state they represent. With Israeli and American flags flapping in the wind everywhere you turned, Obama, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly affirmed the U.S.-Israeli alliance and insisted it would remain unbreakable in the face of the winds of change blowing in the Arab world.
“Your visit here is a crown demonstration of the profound relationship between our two nations,” Peres said, as he opened the ceremony with brief remarks. “The Israeli spirit is inspired by American exceptionalism. We are separated by an ocean and united by the commitment to freedom, to justice.”
Netanyahu spoke next, and had a similar message. “Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat. Thank you for enhancing Israel’s’ ability to exercise that right through generous military assistance, revolutionary missile defense programs, and unprecedented security and intelligence cooperation,” the prime minister said. “In an unstable and uncertain Middle East, the need for our alliance is greater than ever.”
While both Netanyahu and Peres said that Israel wants peace with the Palestinians--with Peres the only one saying he supports a state of Palestine--Obama did not mention the Palestinians, though it’s likely he will pay lip-service to a two-state solution while in Ramallah and at his big speech in Jerusalem tomorrow. Instead, Obama heaped praise on the Israeli state.
“I want to begin right now, by answering a question that is sometimes asked about our relationship -- why? Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the State of Israel?” said Obama. “The answer is simple. We stand together because we share a common story -- patriots determined to be a free people in our land, pioneers who forged a nation.”
In his remarks, Netanyahu claimed to “seek a peace with our Palestinian neighbors.” His record, though, demonstrates otherwise. Netanyahu has presided over a government that has expanded settlements and further cemented Israeli control over the West Bank.
The official speeches garnered applause from a variety of American and Israeli officials in the audience, including Naftali Bennett, the new Israeli government’s minister of industry, trade and labor; Yair Lapid, the new finance minister; Tzipi Livni, who takes over the Palestinian portfolio as Justice minister; Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz; Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren; and more. Despite the official niceties, it was jarring to see Obama, the beneficiary of the U.S. civil rights movement, shake hands with the guardians of a state that imposes separate and unequal sets of rules based on ethnicity.
President Obama chats with Naftali Bennett. (Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)
Before Obama spoke, Israeli military personnel, as well as some American soldiers, milled around and chatted with one another as they waited for the president’s arrival. An Israeli military band played both the Israeli and American national anthems in the moments before the president walked out of Air Force One.
The speeches praising Israel capped a morning that consisted of the Israeli and American elite mingling with one another before the president arrived. I walked right into a special VIP room, where food and drink were served as high-level American and Israeli officials spoke with one another. Yair Lapid and American ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro hugged one another as Shapiro introduced Lapid to his wife.
The ceremony for Obama was carefully choreographed down to the minute, and nobody wanted to mess that up. Shapiro told me “I’m not doing interviews”; Lapid said the same to me, though he wondered how I “snuck” in there.
As Bennett, the settlement booster and Greater Israel supporter, arrived at the ceremony, the Israeli press caught up to him. He gave a brief interview to an Israeli television station, where he praised Obama and the U.S. “The timing of this visit is crucial, so we have great expectations from our great friend America,” Bennett told the station. He also said that Iran was “racing” to build a nuclear weapon.
I called out to Bennett as he walked away, and said, “as minister of the economy, do you plan on financing more settlements?” He gave no response, and instead waved me off. I tried a second time with a different question: “and what about your plan to annex Area C?” Bennett responded by saying his “plan is to strengthen Israel’s economy.” And with that, he walked away for good.
But despite Bennett’s refusal to answer simple questions about his policies for the occupied West Bank, it is clear that the new Israeli government will continue to fund and expand illegal settlements. And despite Obama’s lip-service to the two-state solution, the president has made no sign of seeking to pressure Israel over settlements or a peace agreement.
His speech today, where he made no mention of Palestine, was a clear indication that the U.S.’s “unbreakable alliance” with Israel will continue into his second term. By landing in Israel with no intention to talk about illegal settlements and the discriminatory system Palestinians live under, he has given Israel carte blanche to continue to violate international law with impunity.