One of the tests for Barack Obama on this week's foreign trip is how well he navigates the crosscurrents of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So on a day when he traveled from the Palestinian president's office in Ramallah to the rocket-shelled Israeli town of Sderot, how did he do?
First, the day was not gaffe-free. Answering an Israeli reporter's question in Sderot, he was confused about which Senate committee he served on. "Just this past week, we passed out of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee—which is my committee—a bill to call for divestment from Iran as a way of ratcheting up the pressure to ensure that they don't obtain a nuclear weapon," he said. Just one problem: he actually sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
It wasn't Obama's only mistake of the press conference, held in front of a pile of spent rocket shells that were launched from Gaza into Sderot. When pressed about his pledge, in an earlier Democratic debate, to talk directly to the leaders of rogue states without preconditions, Obama recalled a different response. "I think that what I said in response was that I would at my time and choosing be willing to meet with any leader if I thought it would promote the national-security interests of the United States of America," he explained. "And that continues to be my position." While Obama did indeed explain his pledge in those terms, that nuanced response came much later than the initial debate, held a year ago.
Knowing he'd be under a microscope, Obama had clearly prepared carefully for the trip—so why did he trip up? He gave a clue to the Likud Party's Benjamin Netanyahu, at the start of the day's meetings with Israeli leaders. After an intense five days of travel to Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq and Jordan, Obama—like the rest of his staff and press corps—is exhausted. When Netanyahu asked how he was feeling, Obama said, "I could fall asleep standing up."
Still, those were the only blemishes on an otherwise robust day of repeated commitments to Israel's security and the close alliance between the United States and Israel. In Sderot, he turned an expression of support for the terrorized town into something more personal. "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep every night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that," he said. "I would expect Israel to do the same thing."
Another test for Obama is whether he would break into a sweat under the scrutiny of the large press corps traveling with him all week. Obama seems to be not just psychologically but also physically cool, perspiring little even after his daily workout. But standing outside Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's moving Holocaust museum, Obama finally cracked. As he wrote a lengthy message in the museum's guest book, the heat of Israel's summer sun was too much for a candidate dressed in a dark woolen suit. Obama mopped his brow while writing and a second time when an Israeli reporter asked him if he was going to stop "a second Holocaust."
Obama said it would be inappropriate to hold a press conference at Yad Vashem, and his inscription captured his state of mind. "I am grateful to Yad Vashem and all of those responsible for this remarkable institution," he wrote. "At a time of great peril and promise, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man's potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise from tragedy and remake our world. Let our children come here, and know this history, so they can add their voices to proclaim 'never again.' And may we remember those who perished, not only as victims but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed like us, and who have become symbols of the human spirit."
And if he weren't busy enough, Obama got some reading recommendations. As he sat down with Shimon Peres, the Israeli president waxed on about a book he'd just finished. It was hardly an airport novel. Peres was deeply impressed by the collection of letters between Harold Laski and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Laski was a 23-year-old British socialist at the time of his correspondence with the 75-year-old Supreme Court justice.
Peres raved about the collected letters as some of the best literature he'd ever read in his life, and offered to give Obama his own copy. "Well you keep your copy," Obama demurred. "I'll get it on Amazon.com." It wasn't clear that Peres, who is 84 years old, had ever purchased a book online. But that didn't deter the Israeli president. "You'll enjoy it ... They were highly intelligent and wise. But also here is a young Jewish boy from London, Harold Laski. Oliver Wendell Holmes is a stranger … One is a socialist, the other is a capitalist. They didn't agree about everything, but finally at the end of the story, Oliver Holmes starts to become socialist. We have to take care of civilization of humankind, which is the deeper meaning of socialism."
"I'll make a point of picking that up," Obama said, smiling patiently.