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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.