Barack Obama in Israel: You can go to the ball, they told me – but remember to go in by the back entrance

Alistair Dawber had a much-coveted  ticket to the dinner thrown for Obama. There were strings attached, though

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The Independent Online

Last week it was on, then by Tuesday it was definitely off, but on Thursday morning a call from Shimon Peres’s office and it was back on again: The Independent was going to the ball, or more specifically, the state dinner thrown by the Israeli President in honour of Barack Obama’s visit.

For mere reporters, however, the dinner jamboree is not as glamorous as it might be. A small number of foreign journalists – a Brit, an American and a German among us – had been invited along with the local press pack to provide words for the “pool”, a system that sees a few reporters file for all fellow foreign correspondents here.

The instructions were specific: turn up at the back entrance to the President’s residence at least an hour early, and don’t worry about dressing up – by the time the dinner starts, you’ll be in a tent in the back garden,  set up for journalists.

Still, it was just like being at the Oscars. The red carpet at the President’s residence was in place hours before the guests arrived and scores of staffers spent the afternoon running around in the heat ensuring the last-minute details were in place.

One such detail that was sadly overlooked was the TV set in the media tent, which couldn’t be turned on when, earlier, the American President made the set-piece speech of his visit to Israel’s young people – a fact that was made infinitely worse by the fact that someone had managed to cut through the cable that provided us with the internet. Not such a good endorsement for a country that sees itself a hi-technology hub.

On then to the pen adjacent to the red carpet, and one of the first guests to arrive, right on the advertised start time of 6.30, was the towering figure of Yityish Aynaw, the recently crowned Miss Israel, who said after being invited to the dinner last week that the American President had been a “notable influence on her life”.

As Ms Aynaw gave interviews to local television crews other, perhaps less glamorous, guests slipped into the reception – both opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich and the outgoing Bank of Israel head Stanley Fischer, among others. Thirty-five minutes after arriving, Miss Israel was still outside chatting to reporters.

The 120-odd guests that included leading Israeli and American politicians, religious leaders and heads of military were all in place before Mr Obama and Mr Peres, along with the  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, arrived in the building. Somewhat like schoolchildren, those of us who had had a purple dot attached to our press credentials, allowing us into the dining room, were pushed into a small corner, where we were told, strictly, not to make any noise.

Mrs Netanyahu, an intimidating woman in her own right, gazed up at the US President as he helped her into her seat at the top table, Mr Netanyahu himself having long since sat down.

Much of the trip has been about mutual backslapping, and Thursday evening was no exception. After being awarded the “Presidential Medal of Distinction” – Israel’s highest honour – by President Peres, Mr Obama then made a speech that started with a toast and a joke about Mr Peres having removed his wine glass. The star-struck waitress bearing a new glass was on the platform a little too quickly to think that the whole thing hadn’t been scripted in advance.

Speeches over, the hacks went back to their tent, where, praise be, the internet was back and stories were written. Then it was out into the night again, through the back entrance, naturally.