JERUSALEM (AP) — 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.'"
At the White House, Obama is used to bestowing medals on combat veterans, both living and deceased, as well as famous Americans, scientists, inventors and others.
But on Thursday, it was his turn to bow his head and accept one for himself.
During a state dinner at Israeli President Shimon Peres' official residence, Peres presented his American counterpart with the Medal of Distinction, the highest honor the Jewish state bestows on civilians. An announcer said it was for Obama's "unique and significant" contributions to Israel's security.
"This award speaks to your tireless work to make Israel strong," Peres said during his toast. Then he put the large, round medal dangling from a wide, dark-blue ribbon with a white stripe down the middle around Obama's neck.
The medal features the North Star to symbolize the right path. Also on the medal is a menorah — the emblem of Israel and a symbol of the link between past and present. It is inscribed with the words from Samuel 9:2, "from his shoulders and upward."
Obama wore the medal as he delivered his reciprocal toast.
"This is an extraordinary honor for me and I could not be more deeply moved," he said.
During portions of the dinner that were open to media coverage, Obama and Netanyahu continued the newfound chumminess they displayed a day earlier.
Seated next to each other at a rectangular head table draped in white cloth and adorned with white tulips and orchids, the two leaders were seen leaning in and whispering to one another, laughing and smiling as they awaited Peres' remarks. At one point, they hid their mouths behind their hands strategically to thwart lip readers and microphones in the room.
Obama and Netanyahu have had a prickly relationship, but they have put on a happier face during Obama's first visit to Israel as president.
Among the 120 dinner guests seated at similarly decorated round banquet tables were Justice minister Tzipi Livni; Avigdor Lieberman, a Netanyahu ally; and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida, the chair of the Democratic Party.
The invite list led to some interesting pairings.
Seated together at one table were a rabbi from the Western Wall and a Muslim cleric. At another table sat Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to Washington; Yair Lapid, the new star of Israeli politics and a leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party; Yuli Eidelstein, a hard-line Likud lawmaker who is a former Soviet political prisoner and the new speaker of Israel's parliament; U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Livni.
What were they served? A fish appetizer, a duet of beef and lamb on a potato tart, salad, and a plate of fruit, éclairs, dates and other pastries and sweets.
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."
Peres is making sure that controversy over a tree brought to Israel by Obama does not upset the deep-rooted ties between the countries.
Obama brought the magnolia tree as a gift, and planted it at Peres' official residence during a welcoming ceremony Wednesday. Israeli media later reported that the tree would have to be uprooted and tested to make sure it complied with agricultural import regulations.
Peres' office quickly denied the report. It said agriculture officials would conduct "all the necessary tests" required by law but stressed the checkup would be done "without removing the tree from the place where it was planted, as agreed."
Associated Press writer Daniel Estrin contributed to this report.