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Getting to know the PM: Our unexpected Shabbat in a DC hotel with Bennett

5 24 137

Anyone who has served in the IDF knows the deep-seated dread of unexpectedly “closing Shabbat” — staying on base for the Sabbath. Having an anticipated weekend leave snatched away, after what may have been a long stretch of the dusty drudgery that military service entails, ramps up both anxiety — maybe I can still make it home? — and depression.

The advisers, security detail, and journalists who accompanied Naftali Bennett on his first United States trip as prime minister were years, or decades, away from their army stints. They were expecting a tidy two-day visit in which Bennett would forge a personal connection with US President Joe Biden, meet with his top advisers, and come to broad understandings on Iran, visa waivers, and military aid.

But they surely had not forgotten that plans can change abruptly.

The entourage was slated to take off for Israel on Thursday night, with plenty of time after landing at Ben Gurion Airport to get COVID-19 tests and make it home for Shabbat.

But the wheels came off those plans after a deadly suicide bombing killed 13 US soldiers and dozens of Afghan civilians at the Kabul International Airport.

News of the blast filtered through the Israeli press corps as we sipped our Thursday morning coffee and made preparations to head over to the White House for the momentous meeting between Bennett and Biden.

As we clambered into white vans for the two-block drive to the White House accompanied by Secret Service agents, the talk was on the grim updates from Kabul, and how it would affect the meeting between the two leaders. But no one was seriously anticipating — at least not out loud – that it would drastically alter the entire visit.

After standing too long in the searing DC August sun and then making our way through security, we sat in the air-conditioned White House press briefing room waiting to be told that Bennett was on his way to his 11:30 meeting with the president.

As 11:30 came and went, talk turned to a delay of a couple of hours at most. Nothing that would change the character of the entire trip.

Then the fateful announcement came through.

The meeting was indefinitely delayed but emphatically not canceled, according to Bennett’s office. We were told to grab our cameras and computers and head back to our rooms at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel.

And the calculations immediately began. How many hours after a presidential meeting could Bennett, an Orthodox Jew, take off from Andrews Air Force Base? Might the meeting be pushed to Friday morning? Were dozens of Israelis, including the leader of the Jewish state, going to “close Shabbat” in Washington?

As the hours dragged on, reality slowly began to set in.

We were told that the cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday in Jerusalem was canceled.

“When is candle-lighting in DC?” one of the reporters wrote in the WhatsApp group at 2:30 p.m.

Minutes later, the White House released a statement announcing that “the President’s bilateral meeting with H.E. Naftali Bennett, Prime Minister of the State of Israel, has been rescheduled for tomorrow.”

We were going to spend Shabbat stuck in our (very nice) hotel, forbidden to go outside in order........

© The Times of Israel

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