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Obama’s Most Revealing Moment in Israel

Operation Desert Schmooze, President Obama’s two-day charm offensive in Jerusalem, achieved its central goal of convincing Israelis that the president, to invert an ancient stereotype, doesn’t have horns.

Obama’s achievements were partly symbolic. Merely by smiling and saying comforting words about Israel’s inherent legitimacy, he went a long way toward neutralizing a Republican propaganda campaign that was meant to convince Israelis (and American Jews) that he was the bastard offspring of Jimmy Carter and Haman. Jonathan Tobin, formerly an acidic critic of Obama’s approach to Israel, wrote on Commentary magazine’s website that many of the president’s “Jewish and Democratic defenders have been to some extent vindicated and his critics chastened, if not silenced.”

The achievements were also substantive. Obama somehow convinced the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who does not spend his days looking for people to apologize to, that he should call the obstreperous Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to say how sorry he was for the loss of Turkish lives during the notorious flotilla conflict off the Mediterranean coast in 2010. The apology is helping clear a path for cooperation between the two countries on other matters, including the fallout from the coming disintegration of Syria.

Netanyahu and Obama also discussed Iran, in an effort to coordinate their timelines for action against its nuclear program. The Israelis appear to have convinced Obama, if he needed further convincing, that an Iranian nuclear weapon posed an existential threat to Israel. Obama succeeded in convincing the Israeli defense establishment that he means business when he promises to use military force against the Iranian nuclear project if sanctions and diplomacy fail.

In his speech last week before some 2,000 Israeli college students, Obama said: “I’ve made the position of the United States of America clear. Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained, and as president, I’ve said all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”

This speech was a rhetorical success, a tactical triumph and the highlight, most everyone agreed, of the trip. His expression of American support for Israel was so uncompromising, and so deeply felt, that when he pivoted, mid-speech, to ask Israelis to consider the suffering of Palestinians, he received a standing ovation. The president learned, belatedly, the joy of speaking directly to Israelis, rather than addressing them through the filter of the American Jewish establishment.

But the moment of real clarity — the moment when it became clear to me that it is exceedingly difficult to quell Israeli anxieties about the president, about the U.S. and about the physical safety of their country — came a day later, at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial on the outskirts of Jerusalem, during a quiet ceremony before an audience that consisted mainly, it seemed, of White House pool reporters (me among them).

Obama spoke first, expressing a formulation that Israelis were waiting to hear. In 2009, in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world, Obama suggested that the Holocaust explained Israel’s existence and justified it. This notion is anathema to mainstream Israeli thinking. Israel exists because it is the historic home of the Jewish people, not because Europe decided to solve its Jewish problem on the backs of Arabs. At Yad Vashem, Obama repudiated this portion of his Cairo speech. He said: “Here, on your ancient land, let it be said for all the world to hear: The state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust. But with the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel, such a Holocaust will never happen again.” The prime minister, standing by his side, seemed pleased.

Then came the former chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau, who did not seem at ease. Lau, the chairman of Yad Vashem, was one of the youngest survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. The Germans killed his mother and father, and most of the rest of his family. Lau, looking directly at Obama, said: “I want to use this occasion as an opportunity for me to thank you. On April 11, 1945, in the concentration camp of Buchenwald, which you visited, the American troops broke into the camp” and liberated the Jewish prisoners, he said. He told of a Jewish army chaplain ­(Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who died Wednesday, in the Bronx) who walked through the barracks, crying out in Yiddish, “Jews, you are free!”

Lau went on to describe an encounter he recently had in Seattle with one of his liberators, an American named Leo Hymas. “He welcomed me with tears in his eyes; he knew that I was a Holocaust survivor, a child from Buchenwald. He shook my hand and said, ‘Rabbi, I was one of the liberators of Buchenwald. I asked permission to meet with you before I give my soul to the lord of the universe. I am asking you for forgiveness for being late. We came too late.’ “

Lau looked at Obama. “Yesterday, Mr. President, you promised us that we are not alone. Don’t be too late.”

I heard subsequently that a number of senior Israeli military officers were upset with Lau for equating the helpless Jews of Buchenwald to the heavily armed Jews of Israel. Lau’s plea to Obama veered from the Zionist script. Israel was created so that Jews would never again have to rely on strangers for their lives. But Lau was recognizing something true about this moment in Israel’s history: There are some challenges that are too big for Israel to handle on its own. The threat of a nuclear Iran may be one of those challenges.

More than ever before, the defense of Israel appears to be in the hands of an outsider, a man who never imagined he would be charged with such a responsibility.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic.