President Barack Obama has permitted TV crews with live microphones to accompany him at virtually every stop in Israel, giving a rare and fascinating glimpse at the joking and small talk that takes place on the sidelines of official visits.
In Jerusalem on Thursday, Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Israel Museum, where they examined the Dead Sea Scrolls. Reading a passage from Isaiah from a facsimile of a scroll, Netanyahu explained: “It says, `Nations should not lift swords unto nations and they shall know war no more.”
The phrase forms the lyrics to a popular Hebrew folk song often used as a rallying call for peace.
Obama marveled that the Hebrew language had not changed much over the centuries.
Minutes later, during a tour of a technology exhibit, the two leaders stopped by a display of a robotic snake that can burrow into rubble during rescue operations. The three-foot contraption wriggled and separated and reared up. “Let me just say, my wife would not like this,” Obama said, grinning.
At a brain imaging display, a scientist explained that the first step in studying brain function is taking accurate measurements of the brain. “That presupposes there is something to measure, right?” Netanyahu joked.
Developers of a driver assistance device that detects road obstacles described how their Mobileye protected passengers by sensing a car’s proximity to other cars.
“Pedestrians, too?” Obama asked. “Pedestrians, cars…,” one of the developers replied.
“Dogs?” Obama wondered. “Not dogs,” came the reply.
For Obama, this was personal. The president reflected repeatedly on his experience as a father and an African American as he contemplated the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Obama contrasted the experience of children growing up amid the conflict to that of his two daughters, who in an earlier period in American history would have been denied the opportunities granted to others.
“Those of us in the United States understand that change takes time, but it is also possible,” he said.
Later, in Jerusalem, Obama cited Martin Luther King Jr. and likened the story of the upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover to the experience of blacks in the U.S. who were freed from slavery and persecution.
Of the Passover story, Obama added: “For me personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, it spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.”
And the president veered briefly off of his prepared remarks to scores of Israeli students to convey a lesson he took away from meeting earlier in the day with Palestinian students in the occupied West Bank.
“They weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons,” he said. “I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, `I want these kids to succeed. I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do.'”
As Obama prepared for his meeting with Abbas, Israel’s president delivered a stern warning: Don’t ruin your appetite.
Obama was taking his leave from Israeli President Shimon Peres during the technology tour when he made note of the state dinner planned at Peres’ residence later Thursday, after Obama returned from talks with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.
“So I’ll see you this evening?” Obama asked Peres.
“Yes, don’t eat too much in Ramallah,” retorted Peres, prompting Obama to laugh.
In the most emotional moment of the tech tour, Obama and Netanyahu encountered a Druze Israeli war veteran and a U.S. army veteran, both paralyzed from the waist down. Both demonstrated how they were able to walk with the help of crutches and a computerized exoskeleton that supported their legs as they moved.
Obama gave both presidential “challenge coins,” used to recognize veterans for their service.
The army veteran, Theresa Hannigan, a 60-year-old from Long Island, N.Y., was learning how to use the motorized aides, called the ReWalk, at the Bronx VA hospital. She implored Obama to help the device obtain FDA approval. Her voice breaking, Hannigan stood straight and hugged Obama.
The system is made by an Israeli company called Argo Medical Technologies. Its exoskeleton suit uses computers and motion sensors to allow paraplegics to walk with motorized legs that power knee and hip movement.
Obama offered a personal reflection. “Michelle’s father had MS, so he used crutches until he was probably 45, 50, then got a wheelchair.”
Netanyahu replied: “This would have given him a different life.”
© 2013 AP DIGITAL
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