The announcement of the itinerary of President Obama’s visit next week to Israel has produced a predictable kerfuffle. With every possible site rife with symbolism, the omission of some places of interest and the inclusion of others is the sort of thing to send the already hyperactive sensitivities of Israel’s supporters into overdrive. Given the history of the past four years during which the president has lost few opportunities to slight Israel and its government, it’s understandable that the decisions about the trip will be examined with a fine-tooth comb and that each element would be suspected as yet another example of Obama’s hostility.
But while I’ll admit I raised my eyebrows about some of the choices, carping about the schedule misses the point. The only real symbolism of this visit is that he will be there. Though there are strong disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem on some vital issues, the Obama trip remains a nightmare for Israel-bashers. There has been no U.S. president who has been less sympathetic to Israel than Obama in a generation. Yet he will be journeying to the Jewish state to unequivocally pledge his nation’s support for its security. If the tone of the foreign policy of his first term was set by his 2009 Cairo address where he pointedly snubbed Israel and treated the complaints of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to the Holocaust, it is to be hoped that the sight of showing respect for symbols of Jewish sovereignty over the land will be just as influential.
The most controversial aspect of the Obama itinerary is the decision for him to drop the seemingly obligatory visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. That smacks of a lack of respect or support for Israel’s claims to the Old City of Jerusalem as well as to Judaism’s holiest site. That he will go to the Church of the Nativity in Palestinian Authority-controlled Bethlehem while also avoiding any Muslim sites will also raise the hackles of some.
The other sore point will be the fact that the president will not address the Knesset but will instead give a major address to an audience largely composed of students—as was the case in Cairo—at Jerusalem’s convention center (though students from Ariel in the West Bank were not invited).
Obama’s decision to speak at a religious university in Cairo was fitting because it was the perfect symbol of Egyptian society. But the Knesset is living proof of Israel’s status as the sole real democracy in the region. But given the president’s belief that he knows what’s good for Israel better than its democratically elected leaders, it’s hardly surprising that he would have little interest in paying homage to that institution. However, to be fair, it is also possible that the motivation for the snub had more to do with Obama’s notoriously thin skin than his contempt for the country’s representative government. Unlike Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was repeatedly cheered to the echo when he addressed a joint meeting of Congress in 2011, the president knows there is every chance that he will be heckled or jeered by some members of the raucous and unruly parliament.
That said there will still be plenty for friends of Israel to cheer in the visit.
Obama will not only go to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial, he will also make a stop to Israel’s version of Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement. That will be a telling rebuke to the increasing chorus of those who wish to delegitimize Israel and its reason for being. Also important will be a visit to the Israel Museum where he will view the Dead Sea Scrolls, a telling reminder of Jewish history and claims to the land that no amount of Palestinian revisionism and propaganda can erase. This, as much as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire to show the president the new high-tech industries, helps establish the justice of Israel’s cause.
One element of the trip will be entirely self-serving. Obama will inspect an Iron Dome anti-missile battery. That will be a not-so-subtle reminder of his attempt to claim sole credit for the creation and funding of the vital defense system. However, Obama won’t bother to visit an Iron dome at its normal station but will instead take a look at one that will be towed to Ben-Gurion Airport to save him time.
Obama’s predilection for moral grandstanding and condescension is well known, and that means there is every chance he will say some things that will offend Israelis and give comfort to their enemies. But no matter what he says, his long awaited trip tangibly reaffirms the alliance between Israel and the United States that can’t be ignored.
For all of the tension between the two countries in the last four years and whatever disputes will ensue in the next four, even Barack Obama feels compelled to pay tribute to Israel and some of its most important national symbols. Those in the Muslim and Arab worlds as well as in Europe and elsewhere who have been encouraged by the distance that the Obama administration has sought to create between the U.S. and Israel will be upset by his presence in the country no matter what Obama says.