Obama en route to Israel for first state visit

Air Force One leaves Washington for Tel Aviv as US president kicks off three-day Middle Eastern trip

US President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One during his departure from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, March 19 (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One during his departure from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, March 19 (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Air Force One took off Tuesday evening from Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington DC, carrying US President Barack Obama to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport for a three-day visit to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. Obama is scheduled to land around 12:30 p.m. Israel time.

The US president is to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem Wednesday afternoon.

Israel made final preparations Tuesday to receive Obama, holding rehearsal ceremonies at Ben-Gurion Airport. He will depart for Jordan on Friday afternoon.

The tarmac was jam-packed with American vehicles and helicopters that will service the president during his visit.

An airport official jokingly referred to the heavy US presence as a “friendly takeover” of the airport.

Some 15,000 police personnel will be deployed in Jerusalem on each day of the visit to ensure maximal security.

During Obama’s visit the main highway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv (Route 1) will be closed for lengthy periods of time. Also, the streets around the King David Hotel, where the president will be staying, will be closed to vehicle traffic for the duration of the visit.

The Israeli smartphone WAZE navigation app will be synchronized with Israel police, aiming to update drivers in real-time about blocked roads and to redirect traffic to alternative routes.

As part of his talks with Israeli political leaders, Obama is scheduled to meet incoming Knesset opposition leader MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) on Thursday at the President’s Residence in conjunction with President Shimon Peres. The meeting will take place despite the fact that Yachimovich has yet to officially enter the post.

Outside the president’s residence on Tuesday evening, several hundred protesters gathered to urge Obama to release Jonathan Pollard, a spy-for-Israel serving a life term in solitary confinement. Obama said in an interview last week that he did not intend to free Pollard immediately, but would ensure rights available to all prisoners were made available to Pollard.

Pollard’s wife, Esther, was among the speakers at the Tuesday protest. Obama will hold two meetings at Peres’s residence, on Wednesday and Thursday, the latter of which will conclude with a state dinner in his honor.

Some 200,000 Israelis have signed a petition for Pollard’s release, which Peres is to hand to Obama.

Earlier on Tuesday, an Israeli man was arrested by police on the eve of Barack Obama’s visit for threatening to kill the president.

Channel 10 news said the man, a 63-year-old from Afula in northern Israel, was apparently mentally unstable. He was being investigated Tuesday night, the report said. He issued the threat over the internet, later reports said.

Later Tuesday, two right-wing activists, Raphael Morris and Henmael Dorfman, were briefly detained by police and released on condition they stay away from the Obama delegation. Police said they were questioned over past disturbances and in connection with the Obama visit. They said they opposed Obama’s visit, for fear it would advance moves toward Palestinian statehood, but had no intention of interfering in the visit, Israel radio reported.

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