Yad Vashem but not the Knesset, the Church of the Nativity but not the Western Wall, the Israel Museum but not Masada. In a visit as high-profile as US President Barack Obama’s Wednesday-to-Friday stay in Israel, every stop on the itinerary is laden with political significance. So, too, every location left out.
So why is Obama doing what he’s doing, going where he’s going, and avoiding what he’s avoiding? Here’s a chronological guide.
At around 12:15 p.m., Air Force One will land at Ben Gurion Airport and Barack Obama will step on Israeli soil for the first time since becoming president four years ago. He is traveling without his wife Michelle, because the first lady’s unofficial policy is not to go abroad while school is in session, so her daughters don’t stay home alone or miss class. Secretary of State John Kerry will be with Obama at every step of the way.
President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be on site to greet Obama with welcoming speeches. The two presidents will inspect an honor guard, and then Obama himself will make his first short speech.
He will go on to visit a battery of the Iron Dome missile defense system, brought to the airport for his convenience.
Perhaps more than anything else, Iron Dome symbolizes Obama’s declared commitment to Israel’s security. Beyond the around $3 billion in annual foreign aid the US gives Israel, his administration provided Jerusalem with a supplemental $275 million to finance development of the rocket defense system, which intercepted 84 percent of rockets fired from Gaza at residential areas during November’s military campaign against terror groups in the strip.
Launching his trip with a photo-op at the entirely feel-good Iron Dome is a smart way for Obama to start a visit likely to be fraught with discussions over more contentious issues: the stalled peace process and ongoing settlement expansion, the proliferation of Syrian chemical weapons, and especially the differences between Washington and Jerusalem over how and when to thwart the Iranian nuclear program.
From the airport, Obama will fly to Jerusalem on the Marine One presidential helicopter (in Jerusalem, and later Ramallah, he will travel in an armored Chevrolet known as The Beast), according to Israel Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld.
At 4 p.m., Peres will greet Obama at the gates of his residence on Jerusalem’s Hanassi Street and stride along with him on the red carpet, as 60 local children wave Israeli and US flags. Inside, Obama will sign the guestbook and listen to three kids perform “Tomorrow” (from the musical “Annie”) in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Obama will plant a tree in the residence’s garden, before the leaders withdraw to a private room for two diplomatic work meetings — first with their senior staff and then alone.
“The two presidents will discuss security and diplomatic issues affecting Israel, especially the Iranian nuclear threat, the situation in Syria, the peace process with the Palestinians and the strengthening of the strategic relations between Israel and the United States of America,” Peres’s office said Sunday.
At about 5:30, Obama will make the short drive to the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street, for what an Israeli official called “the epicenter of the entire visit” — marathon talks with Netanyahu. Obama has spent “more time together one-on-one” with Netanyahu than with any other world leader, according to US Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes. On Wednesday, “they’ll have an opportunity to have a very wide-ranging discussion on the various issues — security, political, and economic,” Rhodes told reporters last week.
About five hours are officially allotted to talks with Netanyahu, part of which will doubtless focus on Obama’s efforts to dissuade the prime minister from unilaterally attacking Iran. Obama told Channel 2 last week he thinks there is still plenty of time for diplomacy; he said Tehran is still a year away from being able to produce a nuclear bomb, but Netanyahu is decidedly more impatient.
At the beginning of the meeting, Netanyahu will hand Obama what the Prime Minister’s Office called a “symbolic gift”: a gold-coated 0.04 sq.mm. nano-chip bearing the Israeli and US declarations of independence, etched side-by-side to a depth of 0.00002 mm.
“The declarations were etched, using a focused beam of high energy gallium ions, on a chip that was affixed to a Jerusalem stone dating to the late Second Temple Period (1st century BCE to 1st century CE), that was used to seal clay vessels that held liquids and spices,” the PMO explained. “The unique gift symbolizes the main messages of the visit — the strong and deep state of bilateral ties, the link of thousands of years between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel, and the leading technological status of Israel’s research and development centers.”
At around 8, the two will break for a joint press conference. They’ll then continue talking over and after a “working dinner” prepared by Chef Shalom Kadosh, which is scheduled for two hours but can last as long as its protagonists wish.
Besides Iran, Syria and “Palestine,” the menu will include ravioli filled with confit of Jerusalem artichokes and fillet of red mullet tossed with green soybeans. After the first course, the leaders will refresh their palate with pink grapefruit and pomegranate sorbet before the main course is served: roast fillet of beef in aromatic spices and a selection of spring vegetables. Apple crumble mixed with red fruits; Gewurztraminer zabaglione with citrus honey; fig and date petits fours with caramelized green almonds will round out the repast.
Eventually, Obama will get to catch some z’s in his suite at the King David Hotel.
After Wednesday’s politics, Obama will spend part of day two on more touristic pursuits. First stop: the Israel Museum. At the iconic Shrine of the Books, he will see the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, some of them 2,400 years old.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are “a testament, of course, to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel,” Rhodes said, adding that Obama “very much looks forward to” seeing them. Looking at these ancient parchments, of course, is about more than the president’s archaeological curiosity: it can be understood as a nod to the Jewish people’s millennia-old roots in this land.
In his June 2009 speech in Cairo, Obama seemed to justify Israel’s right to exist by invoking the Holocaust, leaving many Israelis dismayed that he failed to mention the Jewish nation’s historic sovereign connection to the Land of Israel.
“One of the reasons Obama is traveling to Israel next week — the first overseas trip of his second term — is to correct the impression, partly created in Cairo, that he doesn’t understand Israel’s history, and has no feeling for the underlying justice of its cause,” veteran US-Jewish journalist and Obama intimate Jeffrey Goldberg wrote recently.
Having Obama visit — and marvel at — ancient Jewish scriptures found near the Dead Sea can be seen as an effort to correct the earlier omission.
After indirectly affirming that connection between the Israelites of yore and today, Obama will be treated to a half-hour tour of seven of Israel’s most important contributions to science and technology, underlining Israel’s status as the start-up nation. After visiting the museum’s “Israeli Technology for a Better World” exhibit, the president will briefly chat with a few local high-tech pioneers.
“Seeing the ancient connection through the Dead Sea Scrolls and then the future that is being forged in Israel through the technology exposition I think will be a very powerful experience,” Rhodes said.
But if Obama truly sought to highlight the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, why not visit the Western Wall? One minor reason: On his last visit to Judaism’s holiest site, in 2008, after he placed a note in one of the cracks, nosy Israeli reporters took it out and published it, causing a small scandal. (For the extremely curious: the note reportedly stated: “Lord — protect my family and me. Forgive my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.”)
Then an Illinois senator and presidential candidate, Obama was heckled by locals that day, with one man shouting at him for minutes on end. “Obama, Jerusalem is our land! Obama, Jerusalem is not for sale!”
“I was expecting more reverence,” Obama told reporters later.
More substantively, Obama’s decision to skip the Wall this time has to do with the political implications of such a visit. The Old City lies beyond the pre-1967 lines, and Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem has not been recognized by the international community. A US president visiting the site under the auspices of his Israeli hosts would trigger diplomatic headaches he evidently prefers to live without.
For the record, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also avoided the Wall when they visited as presidents.
After the Israel Museum, Obama and his entourage will travel to Ramallah for a working lunch and a press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. After the meal, Obama will meet Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad at Ramallah’s Al-Bireh Youth Center, where he will also get to speak with young Palestinians.
“What we are going to tell him behind closed doors is what we are saying in public. There is no secret that a successful peace process needs a complete settlement freeze,” Nabil Shaath, a top adviser to Abbas, said on Sunday. “The Israelis are building on our land and claiming they want to negotiate with us about this land.”
After just a few hours in the Palestinian territories, Obama will head back to Jerusalem. There have been reports he might meet again with Netanyahu, to relay back whatever was discussed with Abbas. Netanyahu may have offered various goodwill gestures, in an effort to create a climate for the resumed negotiations sought by Obama. The president may have progress to report.
Next up, Obama’s much-anticipated speech to the Israeli public — especially young Israelis — at the International Convention Center. Why didn’t he choose to speak in the Knesset? His last two predecessors did: Clinton in 1994 and Bush in 2008.
According to Rhodes, the Israeli government “did not express a strong preference in that regard.
“What we told the Israeli government is that the president was very interested in speaking to the Israeli people, and that, in particular, he wanted to speak to young people,” Rhodes said. “We obviously have a deep respect for the Knesset as the seat of Israeli democracy, and in the past, the president, again, has made clear the very significant attachment that we place on the fact that both Israel and the United States are democracy.” However, he added, the president likes to address students, as he did in Cairo (where he spoke at the local university).
A possible concern: the fear of being heckled by right-wing MKs. Freshman Likud lawmaker Moshe Feiglin, for example, had threatened to walk out if Obama dared to show up without Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy who is serving a life term in an American prison. It was not his way “to shout and make a scene,” Feiglin said, but “on the other hand, how could I sit quietly and honor the president of the nation that has imprisoned our brother Jonathan for 28 years?”
Still, even the ICC address brings its own controversies. The Americans pledged to “ensure that every sector of Israeli society is represented in the hall,” US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said last week. But the fact that the embassy in Tel Aviv invited students from all Israeli universities except the one in the West Bank town of Ariel — the first such institution beyond the Green Line — caused protests not only among Israeli right-wingers. Labor MK Nachman Shai on Sunday called on the National Student Union to boycott Obama’s speech over the issue.
After the speech, Obama will meet with US diplomatic staff at the American Consulate, and then will return to the President’s Residence for another meeting with Peres, later to be joined by Netanyahu. In a late addition to the schedule, a pre-dinner meeting was also slotted in for the president and Israel’s new opposition leader, Labor party chair Shelly Yachimovich.
At 8, the leaders will enter the hall where Peres is hosting a state dinner for his guest. Along with a meal which will feature somewhat controversial local cuisine, there will be more speeches, by Peres and Obama. Peres will bestow upon Obama the Presidential Medal of Distinction, the country’s highest civilian award, for his commitment to Israel’s security.
Some 120 VIPs are invited to the lavish affair, including former president Yitzhak Navon, author David Grossman, former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, Nobel chemistry laureate Ada Yonath, and Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, the 21-year-old Ethiopian-born Netanya resident who was elected Miss Israel 2013 earlier this month, and, of course, other political and military top brass. Iranian-born diva Rita will perform “Jerusalem of Gold” and Holon-born singer/songwriter David D’or will sing “Amazing Grace,” before Obama heads back to the presidential suite at his hotel.
The morning of Obama’s last day in Israel starts with a visit to Mount Herzl, where he will lay a wreath at the graves of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl and slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. This part of the visit is standard fare. Yet the significance of Obama honoring Herzl — the first to advocate the creation of a Jewish nation-state in the Jewish people’s ancient homeland — and Rabin — who was murdered because of concessions he made to the Palestinians in the quest for peace — will not be lost on the Israeli public.
The next stop is, also according to routine protocol, a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum, where Obama will lay a wreath and make remarks about “that particular tragic element of our shared history,” according to Rhodes.
After Yad Vashem, where Obama also laid a wreath during his previous visit, he will tour the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. A second visit in the West Bank can be understood as nod to the Palestinian leadership, who might have felt slighted if he had only come to Ramallah. The church — which Christian tradition says is the birthplace of Jesus — was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List just last June, soon after the organization accepted “Palestine” as a full-fledged member.
The visit to the church is less a political favor to Abbas than a show of solidarity with the dwindling Christian populace in the region, who have not had an easy time lately — “not just in the West Bank, but in places like Syria and Egypt and Iraq,” said Rhodes.
“Recognizing the very deep and ancient Christian communities in that part of the world I think is an important thing to do, because in these transitions [of the Arab Spring], we’ve underscored the need to protect the rights of minorities and we’ve underscored the need for pluralism. The visit to the Church of the Nativity is intended to send that signal,” he said.
From Bethlehem, Obama will return to Ben Gurion Airport, where, at 3 p.m. Peres will send him off with a small farewell ceremony. Obama then heads to Jordan, where he will meet with King Abdullah in Amman and visit the archaeological site in Petra, before returning to Washington. Anticipated for years, a 51-hour whirlwind visit will be over.