For Obama, trip is a chance to repair relations with disappointed Israelis


A Palestinian man walks near placards designed by an activist depicting President Obama, ahead of his visit to the region, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 12. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

Among the landmarks the Israeli government asked President Obama to visit during his trip to Jerusalem this week is the hilltop tomb of Theodor Herzl, the chief theoretician of Zionism, who died decades before his fears of growing anti-Semitism were borne out by the Holocaust.

The site’s symbolic weight has prompted other foreign leaders to avoid it. But Obama agreed — part of a series of carefully considered moves aimed at repairing relations with America’s primary Middle East ally.

For many Israelis, Herzl’s grave represents an ancient Jewish claim, rather than one rooted in the Holocaust, to the slice of land that comprises their modern state.

It is an argument that Obama appeared to ignore in the eyes of Israel’s most ardent supporters, who viewed him as focusing too heavily on relations with the Islamic world early in his first term. The result: a deep Israeli mistrust of Obama that severely undermined his early push for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

As he embarks Tuesday on his first presidential trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Obama will seek to clarify his support for the Jewish state’s theory of its historical roots — addressing one of several subtle, but essential, missteps he is attempting to fix in his second term. The trip is a mission of remedial diplomacy, rather than the kind of specific peace initiative common for previous presidential visits.

PAST COVERAGE: The Post’s Scott Wilson explains that President Obama wanted to restore America’s reputation as a credible mediator in the long conflict. (Scott Wilson and JulieAnn McKellogg/The Washington Post)

Obama will also travel to the West Bank city of Ramallah during his four-day trip for air-clearing meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders, who are deeply disappointed by Obama and his staunch opposition to their diplomatic push for statehood through the United Nations.

“Rather than a preemptive strike, I see this visit as a preemptive kiss,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a pro-Israel advocacy group that favors a two-state solution to the conflict. “It’s a way to say to both sides, ‘I love you, I’m with you, now as we get down to work on this, I don’t want to hear any complaints or excuses that I don’t.’ ”

Complicating factors

Israelis, Palestinians and some administration officials say the diplomacy is necessary if Obama hopes to revive his ill-fated effort to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, particularly as the broader Arab world is changing in unpredictable ways through protest, war and elections. In the Middle East, as many U.S. presidents have learned, problems rarely get easier to resolve with time.

Among the complicating factors Obama will encounter will be the uncertainty surrounding a new Israeli government — just formed Saturday — and a divided Palestinian political leadership.

Each are governing societies increasingly divided between nationalist religious movements less inclined to compromise and more-secular parties willing to relinquish some land and historical claims in return for a lasting agreement.

But for Obama, who will be traveling with his new secretary of state, John F. Kerry, the time may be more auspicious. He is feeling little pressure at home about his relationship with Israel, which emerged as a prominent issue during his reelection campaign.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, a large majority of Americans, 69 percent, say the administration should leave the negotiations to the two parties. Just 26 percent say the United States should take a leading role in resolving a conflict that Obama has declared “a vital national security interest of the United States.”

Public wants U.S. out of Middle East dispute

“Frankly, there’s value in traveling precisely at a time when there is a new government in Israel and a new government in the United States,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

“There are obviously going to be significant decisions in the months and years ahead about Iran, about Syria, about Israeli­-Palestinian peace,” Rhodes added. “And so by having this opportunity to speak with Israeli leaders, it can frame those decisions that ultimately will come down the line.”

Obama’s diplomatic course correction will focus first and most heavily on Israel, where he will speak not only to government officials but also to young Israelis in a speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.

The White House chose the venue over the Knesset, Israel’s parliament and the more traditional arena for a speech by a visiting head of state. Hundreds of Israeli university students will be bused in Thursday evening for the convention center speech, the centerpiece of the trip’s public diplomacy efforts.

Much of the Israeli public’s suspicion about Obama is rooted in the events surrounding his June 2009 address in Cairo, when he called for a “new beginning” with the Muslim world.

In that speech, Obama said the United States would not accept the “legitimacy” of Israeli settlement construction on land occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war — territory the Palestinians see as their future state. He also condemned the brand of Islamist extremism embraced by the armed Palestinian movement Hamas, which calls for Israel’s destruction.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netan­yahu, who bristled publicly over Obama’s pressure, adopted later that year a 10-month freeze on building in the West Bank. But the policy exempted construction in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians view as their future capital, and contained loopholes that allowed much building to continue.

A divided Palestinian leadership joined the direct U.S.-brokered peace negotiations with only a month left in the Israeli building moratorium, and the talks collapsed soon after when Netanyahu did not renew the freeze.

“It’s part of building confidence,” said Dore Gold, a former Netanyahu adviser who heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, referring to Obama’s address to the Israeli public. “Building that kind of faith with the people of Israel is extremely important, especially if President Obama wants to pursue a line of policy that brings us closer to a political solution.”

After Israel’s January election, Netanyahu is head of a more centrist government. That may give Obama more leverage to push for steps, including a new Israeli construction freeze in the West Bank outside of the large settlement blocs, that could help start peace talks.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Bar-Ilan University, said Obama will find “a political Israel which is the best from his perspective since the beginning of his administration.”

“Netanyahu is weaker and the partners in his coalition are stronger,” Gilboa said.

‘Claim to the land’

As much as the Cairo speech upset many Israelis and their most ardent U.S. supporters, it was Obama’s next move that raised even more alarm.

After the speech, the president flew to Germany to visit the Buchenwald concentration camp. He did not stop in Israel on his way — a visit that his predecessor, George W. Bush, also put off until his second term.

During a haunting wind-swept afternoon at the hilltop camp, Obama highlighted the suffering of the Jewish people. But to many Israelis, the visit appeared to locate the modern state of Israel’s legitimacy in the Holocaust rather than in the period outlined in the Bible — an argument that some Arab political leaders also make.

Even to many moderate Arabs, the modern Jewish state was created in historical Palestine to assuage European guilt over the Holocaust. Senior administration officials have said this was not the argument Obama intended to endorse.

Working with the White House in the run-up to this week’s visit, Israeli officials suggested a few cultural visits that, in the words of one senior Israeli official, would correct that impression by emphasizing Israel’s “pre-Holocaust claim to a national state.”

The first was the wreath-laying ceremony at Herzl’s tomb. Israeli leaders also suggested that Obama visit the Shrine of the Book, a wing of the Israel Museum that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. That, too, is on Obama’s itinerary.

“The key and core of the conflict is whether the Palestinians and Arabs will accept Jews as a people with a legitimate claim to the land,” said Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the Washington.

But Obama will not venture into Jerusalem’s Old City, which was seized by Israel in the 1967 war and holds some of the holiest sites of the world’s three major religions within its ancient walls. Nor will he meet formally with Palestinian students and other young people in the West Bank, a measure of how far his stature has fallen among Arabs.

He is scheduled to visit a West Bank youth center with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, where he may speak informally to some young Palestinians. Obama has, among other actions, opposed Palestinian efforts at the United Nations to achieve enhanced diplomatic status and a step toward statehood.

“A public event will be a magnet for those wanting to protest the visit and point out Obama’s position on the Palestinian U.N. bid and other issues,” said Ghaith al-Omari, the executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, a two-state advocacy group. “I don’t think the time is right for him to send messages to the Palestinians in town-hall-type events.”

Obama’s primary cultural stop in the West Bank will be a visit to Bethlehem, where he is scheduled to tour the Church of the Nativity, which sits on the purported birthplace of Jesus. White House officials say the stop is in part a show of solidarity with Middle Eastern Christians who have been persecuted with the rise of Islamist parties.

If Obama takes the shortest route to Bethlehem by road, he will pass through the 24-foot-high concrete wall built to separate Israelis and Palestinians — a stark symbol of Israel’s military occupation and the division of land that has occurred without a peace agreement.

Palestinian officials also hope he will get a fresh view of the West Bank during a short helicopter ride from Jerusalem to Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s political capital, which could take him over the volatile Qalandiya military checkpoint, the sprawling Shuafat refu­gee camp and other reminders of more than four decades of occupation.

“He will get a chance to see the difference between the two sides in terms of development, of prosperity and progress — the wall and the refu­gee camps,” said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chief representative in Washington.

“Look, symbolism is good, but we are not lingering on this,” Areikat added. “What we would like to see from the president following his visit is serious engagement by the United States to put an end to this conflict once and for all.”

Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem and Jon Cohen, director of polling for Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media, contributed to this report.

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Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.
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