Friday, February 15, 2013

Three Days in Jerusalem, Two Hours in Ramallah

Three Days in Jerusalem, Two Hours in Ramallah

Leo Rennert

Obama's itinerary for his March 20-22 catch-up visit to Israel will give him ample opportunities to see first-hand the breadth and depth of Jewish roots in the Holy Land, especially in Jerusalem.

The schedule, as reported by Israeli media, has him spending most of the time in Jerusalem over a three-day span. Which shouldn't sit well with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who'll have to content himself with only a couple of hours of face time with Obama -- not in East Jerusalem, claimed by Palestinians as their capital, but in the West Bank in Ramallah. Expect some squawks from the Palestinian side. 

Obama is expected to land at Ben Gurion Airport at noon on March 20, and proceed immediately to Jerusalem. Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu will escort him to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial, where Obama will lay a wreath.

He also will lay wreaths on Mt. Herzl at the grave of Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, and at the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, whose life was cut short by an assassin.

Following a joint press conference in Jerusalem with Netanyahu, Obama and the Israeli leader will dine together. Netanyahu's agenda calls for in-depth talks about Iran, Syria and the faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The following morning, Obama will head to Ramallah for his brief meeting with Abbas. Obama is eager to restart negotiations. But all indications point to continued stubbornness by Abbas, who refuses to enter into peace talks without preconditions. In contrast, Israel need not be persuaded to return to the negotiating table. Will Obama manage to bend Abbas? Doubtful.

In the afternoon, Netanyahu will show Obama a model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period -- graphic reminder of Jewish ties to the capital spanning three millennia.

Then, at the Shrine of the Book, Netanyahu will show him the Dead Sea Scrolls, among the most important archeological discoveries since the founding of the state. And in a rapid trajectory from past to present, Obama then will view an Israel Museum exhibit of Israel's prominence in high-tech, bio-tech, and agriculture.

The afternoon's highlight will be a major Obama address to the Israeli people at a venue that can accommodate at least a thousand Israelis. Which rules out the Knesset, the forum used by Egypt's Anwar Sadat during his historic visit to Jerusalem. The challenge to Obama will be that at the start of his first term, he traveled to Cairo for his historic address to the Muslim world, skipping Israel on that trip -- an omission that still rankles many Israelis. As for skipping the Knesset as a venue for his speech: the White House may have gotten word that Knesset members are not exactly a decorous bunch and some might well let Obama know that they think of his Israeli policies. A larger public venue may give Obama a bit more insurance against heckling at close quarters. Still, Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, wasn't deterred from delivering to the Knesset his strong pro-Israel message.

The evening of March 21 has been reserved for an Obama dinner with President Peres.

On March 22, before leaving for Jordan, Obama, accompanied by Netanyahu, will visit an Iron Dome missile-defense battery -- a joint project with the Pentagon that proved itself by intercepting most incoming Palestinian missiles during Israel's counterterrorism offensive in Gaza last fall.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers