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Obama in Israel: The significance behind where he's going - and where he's not

U.S. President Barack Obama stands with Israel's President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after landing at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv March 20, 2013.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Israel Wednesday with something to prove.

The last time he was in the region, in 2009, Mr. Obama delivered a historic speech in Cairo that called for new relations with the Muslim world and new concessions from Israel: he asked the Jewish state to forgo settlements in the occupied West Bank in favour of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few short months later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize partly on the merits of that address, the promise of which remains unfulfilled.

This time, chastened by four years of frosty relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and facing an Arab world still roiling from two-year-old uprisings, the American President seeks to make a different impression. The two-state solution still is foremost in his mind and will be reflected in several of the stops he'll make. But rather than confronting Israel as an obstacle, it seems he wants to cultivate it as a friend.

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From the Presidential Suite atop Jerusalem's King David Hotel, Mr. Obama can look out over Mount Zion and the Old City walls. To the southeast he can see the security barrier that snakes along the top of the hills separating Israeli Jerusalem from nearby Arab communities.

Beyond the two-state solution, Mr. Obama has chosen to make stops that show an interest in promoting youth, both Israeli and Palestinian, and in Christian history.

Though only 51 hours long – including six hours with the Palestinians in the West Bank – the visit is plenty of time to make the impressions he seeks to make, and for Israelis and Palestinians to make impressions on him.

As such, every stop he makes, and some of those he's chosen not to make, is steeped with meaning.


Iron Dome battery

A missile-defence system developed by Israeli technology and paid for with U.S. money, it shot down several rockets fired by Hamas in Gaza during a confrontation with Israel in November. Israeli officials were keen to show it off.

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Informed, however, that the President would not be able to travel to areas where the batteries are deployed – for security and political reasons – Israel decided to move the batteries to him. Shortly after he lands at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv at midday Wednesday, Mr. Obama can walk over to inspect one of the systems set up on the airfield for the occasion.

Israel Museum

It's not on the itinerary of many visiting heads of state – more frequently visited by the spouses of such visitors – but Mr. Obama made a special request to see the famous Dead Sea Scrolls on display there.

The 2,000-year-old writings were found in caves near the Dead Sea and contain elements of almost all the books of the Old Testament, along with other writings, mostly in ancient Hebrew. Mr. Obama's interest appears to stem from his Christian faith, although Israelis welcome his interest as an affirmation of the history of the Jewish people in the region.

Mount Herzl

Another site not on many official tours, Mount Herzl is the commemorative burial ground of Israeli leaders and fallen soldiers. Mr. Obama reportedly wanted to visit the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated in 1995 while promoting the two-state solution, dear to the U.S. President. He will do so and also will lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, founder of the modern Zionist movement. Curiously, only the official photographers will record the event.

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Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Another presidential request was to visit the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank south of Jerusalem. It is another element of Mr. Obama's apparent Christian emphasis and a chance to bestow on the Palestinian Authority leaders a second, brief visit to their territories.


The Dome of the Rock

Palestinians hoped for a presidential visit to the iconic golden dome, but the politics of entering the Noble Sanctuary, also known as the Temple Mount, are difficult at the best of times. You can't enter the Dome of the Rock (where Abraham is believed by all three monotheistic faiths to have been about to sacrifice his son) without approval from the Muslim authorities who preside over the place, while Israelis insist you be accompanied by their officials and security.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank

Settlers made a pitch for Mr. Obama to drop by one of their large settlements to get their point of view on the Arab-Israeli conflict. In their dreams – the United States and international community view the settlements as illegal.

Indeed, Israeli students from Ariel University, the first such institution established in a West Bank settlement, were not included in the audience of university students invited to hear Mr. Obama's key public address on Thursday. They protested Tuesday against being excluded.

The Knesset

Israeli politicians were miffed, too, when Mr. Obama elected not to give his keynote public address at the parliament as have many visiting foreign leaders before him. Instead, he chose to speak at Jerusalem's International Convention Center to an invited audience, mostly of students. He is expected to try to win over a new generation of support for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Tel Aviv

President Obama told an Israeli interviewer last week that what he'd really like to do is sit in a café in Tel Aviv. No such luck. The swinging secular city is a world apart from uptight, religious Jerusalem. But the politics of Jerusalem and its environs trump all other interests in a short trip such as this one.

Interestingly, Mr. Obama decided to forgo a meeting he did have planned with a prominent Tel Avivian, Labour Party leader Shelly Yachimovich. Originally scheduled for Friday afternoon, the brief event was dropped when U.S. officials learned she is not officially the new leader of the parliamentary opposition for another week. It seems "the Americans are sticklers for formalities," a disappointed Ms. Yachimovich told the Times of Israel.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More


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