The deeper significance of Obama's visit

Analysis: On US president's upcoming trip to Israel, every site that will be visited, every venue for a speech that will be delivered and every public word that will be uttered has been planned with a message in mind.

March 13, 2013 05:36
A MAN in Ramallah walks past signs depicting US President Barack Obama, March 12

Obama poster in Ramallah 370 . (photo credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters)

US President Barack Obama is not your Aunt Myrtle. When he comes to town for a rare visit you can’t just point out the Dead Sea, the Tel Aviv beach promenade, the Old City walls in Jerusalem, and be done with it.

Everything is carefully planned and choreographed. Everything. Every site that will be visited, every venue for a speech that will be delivered, every public word that will be uttered, even the amount of time allotted for each meeting. Nothing is left to chance, all is weighed for its symbolic value: who it will please, who it could possibly antagonize. Everything is planned with a message in mind.

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Thousands of hours have already been spent planning Obama’s two-day visit, which will begin at noon next Wednesday, and the itinerary itself gives a good indication of what Obama is trying to say by coming here.

The symbolism begins soon after his arrival, when Obama is expected to get a tour of an Iron Dome anti-missile battery brought to the airport especially for his review. It is clear what the Iron Dome – a joint Israeli-US venture, US money and Israeli technology – signifies: deep partnership, ironclad cooperation, all the things Obama wants to highlight with this visit.

The US president, oft criticized for not showing Israel enough love, will remind the country by being photographed looking over the Iron Dome that he supports Israel in the ways that count – ensuring its security and qualitative military edge.

From the airport, he will travel to Jerusalem for a brief welcoming reception with President Shimon Peres. And then begins the most important part of the visit: five-and-a-half hours of talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

This will be the crux of the trip. Five-and-a-half hours – divided into a meeting from 5:30 to 8 p.m., a 20-minute press conference and then a dinner scheduled to last until about 11 p.m. – is a serious chunk of time.

This is quantity time. It is also quality time in that it is substantially different from when Netanyahu goes to Washington to meet the president. Though in the White House Netanyahu also has a few hours of face time with the president, the dynamics are dramatically different. In Washington, Netanyahu is on Obama’s turf, and the president, after meeting the Israeli leader, goes about his other business. For Obama, a meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office is all in a day’s work.

But here it is different. Here Obama is Netanyahu’s guest, and he doesn’t have to run off – either in the middle of the meeting or immediately afterward – for a meeting with the visiting Romanian president, or a congressional leader. It is at this meeting where the main issues on the agenda – Iran, Syria, the Palestinians – will be discussed, with each leader trying to provide the other with an understanding of what he can, and cannot, do.

On Thursday, the symbolic part of the program begins early with a visit to the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest surviving copies of a biblical text and evidence of the Jews’ ancient connection to the Land of Israel.

This could actually be called the “make-up” part of the itinerary, because it seems to be an effort to make up for Obama’s 2008 speech in Cairo where he failed to mention any Jewish historical attachment to the Land of Israel, framing the Jews’ return to Israel solely within the context of the Holocaust and tragic Jewish history.

Obama was roundly criticized for that narrative, and this seems an effort at rectification.

But why the Shrine of the Book? If you want to illustrate a Jewish connection to the land, why not a visit the Western Wall, for instance, or the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron? Obviously, no one has any expectations a US president will go to Hebron. And evidently, presidential visits to the Western Wall in “east Jerusalem” are no less sensitive.

Indeed, then-US president Bill Clinton canceled a visit to the Wall in 1994 during his visit because the very idea stirred controversy. Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem at the time, said such a visit could only take place if he accompanied Clinton, and the Palestinians said it was “occupied territory” and only they could show the president the sites. Clinton decided he didn’t need the headache, and just dispensed with it altogether.

Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, also passed over the Western Wall during his two visits here in 2008. He went there as a candidate running for president in 1998 – as Obama did in 2008 – but not as president. As president, Bush opted to paid homage to Jewish history by visiting Massada. Obama’s choice: the Shrine of the Book.

Following the visit to the Shrine of the Book, Obama will visit a museum exhibit profiling Israeli technology that was created for the visit. The country’s universities were all asked to contribute a technological innovation to showcase so that Obama – and the journalists accompanying him – will see Israel not only as a land of the Bible and conflict, but also as a country at the cutting edge of computer technology. Call it rebranding during prime time.

And then Obama is off to Ramallah, a visit that signifies his continued commitment to a two-state solution. Interestingly enough, the time allotted for the Ramallah trip – where he will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – is the same as the time allotted for his meeting with Netanyahu: five-and-a-half hours.

This will be followed by a speech to students at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. There are few more neutral sites in the capital where Obama could give a talk. He wanted to talk to students over the heads of the politicians, but a university would be difficult, because if he spoke at one the others would ask why they were not chosen. At the convention center he will speak at a venue that conjures up no images, no symbols, just a “parve” place to give a speech – nobody can object to the choice of venue, though some may get upset that he chose it over the Knesset.

He will then be hosted for a state dinner by Peres, which is part of the protocol of an official state visit. During this dinner he will again see Netanyahu, and could discuss with him what he talked about earlier in the day with Abbas.

On Friday it is more symbolism: laying wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin. Following Turkish Prime Minister’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent characterization of Zionism as a crime against humanity, Obama’s visit to the grave of the founder of Zionism is not without significance and sends a clear message to those who question Israel’s very legitimacy.

Rabin’s grave is an interesting choice, in that it too is symbolic. Obama could have chosen to lay a wreath at the grave of Menachem Begin (though that would have been more tricky since it is on the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem), or even on any of the graves of the three other prime ministers buried on Mount Herzl: Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir or Yitzhak Shamir, who died last June.

Obama’s choice of Rabin’s grave is obviously a symbol of his commitment to the peace process began by Rabin, as well as homage to the slain leader. There is a message to the Israeli people in that choice.

From there Obama will go to Yad Vashem and then a meeting with the head of the opposition, expected to be Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich.

The final stop on Obama’s whirlwind tour will apparently be the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Here the symbolism is more difficult to ascertain. Does he just want to see the church over the cave where it is believed that Jesus was born because it is important to his religion, or should one read symbolism into this choice because the church was the first world heritage site the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed under the name “Palestine?”

Arguments can, and will, be made in both directions.

As for the real reason, the Americans can always say it’s just tradition and point to precedent – Bush visited there in 2008 and Clinton in 1998, and neither of those visits to the site was infused with landmark political significance.

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