President Obama is gracing the State of Israel with his presence this week, for no discernible reason other than that to have continued avoiding Israel when he has visited many of the world’s despots would have seemed churlish. He comes with a huge entourage, no new “peace” initiatives (thankfully), and the stagecraft of presidential pomp that is always impressive.
How do Israelis feel about it? Many readers may not be able to imagine that Israel is a small country, with a land mass the rough equivalent of New Jersey and a population far smaller than that of New York City. In a small country, symbols matter, and the official preparations have been underway for days – dress rehearsals, itineraries, signage, and the who’s who of invitations to the various official functions. Every such visit, in sense, validates the “legitimacy” of the small country visited, and certainly here where Israelis are always a touch insecure about their place in the world, and for good reason.
One point cannot be overlooked: whoever planned this trip chose the absolutely worst week imaginable to have a presidential visit. The week before Pesach in Israel (as anywhere in the Jewish world, but particularly so here) is a beehive of activity, and to have a presidential visit on the busiest shopping and travel week of the year is pure insanity. I wouldn’t accuse Obama’s handlers of insensitivity, but of rank cluelessness.
Consider: Israel’s main highway connecting its airport (near Tel Aviv) to Jerusalem will be closed for several hours on Wednesday, mid-afternoon; dozens of streets in some Jerusalem residential areas are closed to cars – parked or moving – from Wednesday through Friday. (Most homes do not have garages, nor are there parking garages in residential neighborhoods. Where will the residents put their cars? Beats me. And how come they don’t clear New York streets of cars when the President visits?) Israel’s only international airport will be closed for hours at a time.
Stores within a 2.1 kilometer radius of Obama’s travels have to be closed for three days – at the height of the tourist season. Merchants were so informed on Sunday, and will receive no compensation from the government for their lost earnings. The King David Hotel had to relocate hundreds of guests on the week before Passover, because the hotel must be completely empty except for the President’s official party. The Inbal Hotel had to find new places for only half its guests; the White House press corps does not merit the same exclusivity. (And both hotels eagerly competed against many other hotels for the right to host both parties.)
The Israel Museum will be closed to visitors on Thursday to accommodate the presidential visit, and Yad Vashem will be closed on Friday for the same reason. Israelis are being told to avoid coming to Jerusalem this week, the Holy City, the week before Pesach. Clueless, indeed. People plan visits to Israel around the holiday season, and want to visit sites that will simply be off-limits to them.
Obama’s stated purpose for the visit is to “meet with Israelis.” For that reason, he strangely eschewed addressing the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, as several of his predecessors have done. Of course, he can’t “meet” the people, because he is ensconced in a sterile zone in which regular “people” are not allowed. The “people” that he will be meeting, in the one session devoted to meeting the “people,” is a get-together with Israeli university students in which all universities were invited to send representatives, except for the University of Ariel (in Samaria), excluded for the lamest reason fathomable, unworthy of repetition here.
Because Obama will not ever be in the presence of spontaneous crowds, he will receive a cordial welcome wherever he goes – and rightfully so. I am not of the mind that he will be convinced to do anything – let Israel determine its own future, free Jonathan Pollard, etc. – by embarrassing him. Suffice it to say, the Pollard issue has been revived by the Obama visit, as there are signs all over Israel with pictures of Obama and Pollard and the text between their pictures reading “Yes, You Can.” Nice touch. Pollard deserves to be pardoned; he has now served a sentence more than seven times longer than any other American ever convicted of the same offense – passing classified information to an ally. It is unconscionable that he is still in prison, the likely reasons being Jew-hatred and the inclination of American presidents to use Pollard as a bargaining chip to wring concessions from Israel at some future date. (Such was confessed by Dennis Ross when he urged Bill Clinton not to release Pollard as Clinton had promised to then PM Netanyahu in his first term, before the Wye Conference.) But freedom for Jonathan Pollard has become one of the few issues that unite all Israeli politicians – left and right, religious and not-yet-religious – and the Israeli people as well.
So there is no clear reason why Obama is coming at all, and certainly not this week. Of course, for Obama, it is a public relations bonanza. Presidents always look good on friendly foreign soil, and most presidents have traveled more in their second terms than in their first terms, as they grow frustrated with the lack of progress on their domestic agenda. (That itself is a reason why Americans should rejoice that Obama is coming to Israel.)
The clichés will be raining down on our heads – Obama has “Israel’s back;” “Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon;” “all options are on the table;” Israel “has no better friend.” Less clear are the details, in which the devil always finds his place. Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon – America’s “highest priority” – until it does. And then what? Probably, it will be President Bush’s fault.
Does Israel need a “green light” from the US go attack Iran? Should it coordinate with the US? Frankly, can a Hagel or Kerry be trusted with sensitive information about a planned Israeli strike on Iran, knowing that both are sincerely and firmly anti-war? This is not purely theoretical. A White House source last year leaked to the media Israel’s negotiations with Azerbaijan, a neighbor of Iran, to use their airfields in case a military strike become necessary.
There is a palpable fear that Obama will produce some diplomatic surprise, publicly call for another settlement freeze, a Palestinian state by a date certain, behind-the-scenes threats of repercussions (what could those be? Israel’s economy is stronger that America’s, and Israel would be wise not to complain about the reduced aid it is due to receive this year as a result of the sequester) or something to start the ball rolling on another wave of concessions leading up to a signing ceremony that will be meaningless even before the ink is dry. A plan for new concessions will surely undermine the new Netanyahu government even before the ministers have grown comfortable in their new cars.
The only vocal opposition to Obama’s visit, complete with insults (shoes were thrown at an American diplomatic vehicle driving in Bethlehem the other day, a real affront in the Arab world), comes from the so-called Palestinians, who are angry that Obama is not “forcing” Israel to surrender. They will find that even a sympathetic Obama has tired of their foot-dragging (they could have had a state, G-d forbid, a dozen years ago if they really wanted one) and their incessant demands. Terrorism has unfortunately heated up again; the last two months have seen a marked increase in stoning and shootings of Jews by Arabs in Judea and Samaria, and active terrorist cells in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have been thwarted just in the last few days before they could carry out their diabolical attacks.
I hope that the President will be greeted warmly, as befits any American President. I hope as well that in response to his request for “good will gestures” from the Israelis that each Israeli with whom he meets asks for an American good will gesture first: the release of Jonathan Pollard after 28 years of imprisonment.
Barack Obama is coming here because he has to come here sometime. The timing is bad, but it makes life interesting and travel treacherous. Ironically, he has finally united most Israelis and Palestinians who, for different reasons, will be happy when he has left.
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- History of Israel, Part 2: Herzl and the Rise of Political Zionism [audio]
- History of Israel, Part 1 [audio]
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