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03/22/2013

Obama gets 'rock star' welcome from Israeli students

Obama

President Barack Obama, delivering a keynote speech to Israeli students, was given a 'rock star' welcome. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)

EILAT–U.S. President Barack Obama said he wanted to speak directly to young Israelis when he gave his speech in Jerusalem on Thursday night in front of a crowd of university students.

The non-Israelis watching might not have picked up how far he went to do that. Just a minute or so into the speech, he told the crowd: “Any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet.” That's Israel's answer to Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show (English translation, “What a wonderful country”), must-watch TV for political satire.

Then there was the reference to Facebook campaigns to get Obama to speak at different locations in Israel, notably Rabin Square in Tel Aviv.

“I guarantee you, 95 per cent of university students knew what he was talking about . . . but I bet 95 per cent of our parents had no idea,” says Elad Erdan, vice-chairman of the student union at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private university, who was there for the speech.

Pop-culture pandering? Maybe, but Erdan said it went over well with the crowd. Those inside jokes made him seem “very Israeli, in a way,” and they cheered him “like a rock star.”

Erdat, 26, had high praise for Obama and his insistence that Israelis and Palestinians need to start talking about peace, even if it isn't easy or politically popular to do. “He was very honest, very straightforward, very direct,” Erdan said. “It was like listening to your father. . . . Your father will tell you what to do even if you don't want to hear it because he wants what's best for you.”

He was also grateful that Obama visited Israel in the first place, even if it took more than four years as president to get here.

“He's important for us,” Erdan said. “Israel felt, after his Cairo speech, almost like he was betraying us.”

It was the second remark to Obama's tardiness I'd heard today. When I told my cab driver I arrived in the country around the same time as the U.S. president, he joked: “Maybe he's following you. Maybe that's why he finally came.”

Stephanie MacLellan is an editor on the Star's foreign desk who has worked as a reporter and editor in Slovakia. Follow her on Twitter at @smaclellan

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