Put aside the strained character of President Barack Obama’s relations with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the past four years. Israelis, Palestinians and the U.S. Embassy are now engaged in intense preparations to make the president’s visit a memorable one next month. It’s also being viewed as an opportunity to turn a new page in relations.
Here is how some on the ground are (and are not) rolling out the red carpet for Obama:
Special Logo and Slogan
The Prime Minister’s Office has rolled out a special logo and slogan. The visit is officially being branded “Unbreakable Alliance.” After inviting the public to vote on Facebook from among three choices, this was the logo that was chosen, in which red, white and blue graphics merge the U.S. and Israeli flags.
If getting a glimpse of the President of the United States several times a week in the flesh isn’t enough for White House journalists, they will soon get to see an ice sculpture of none other than POTUS that will be set up in Jerusalem. According to Ynet, the Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat is inviting reporters covering the Obama visit to tour Jerusalem holy sites by day and visit its bars and clubs at night. City streets where Obama’s motorcade will pass will be lined with flags and special lighting. The U.S. does not officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and therefore along with other countries, has its embassy in Tel Aviv.
“Baruch Haba” = “Welcome” in Hebrew
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv got Israelis along the beach to pose in front of a life-size Obama cutout while holding signs in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English that say “Welcome.” Ambassador Dan Shapiro posted this message to Israelis on his Facebook page:
If you too want to welcome President Obama to Israel, all you have to do is make your own sign, take a picture or video, and send it to email@example.com and we'll include it in a cool video clip and we'll post it here and send it to the White House.
Here is part of the montage of photos from Shapiro’s Facebook page:
Palestinians to Obama: Don’t Visit Temple Mount
The welcoming atmosphere isn’t consistently warm.
Palestinian political and religious leaders over the weekend publicly warned Obama against visiting the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, because it might compromise its “Muslim sovereignty.” That site – known as the Temple Mount - marked the location of the ancient First and Second Temples and is for Jews the holiest site in their religion. Muslims also believe the site is holy, and it houses both the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
AFP reports that the Palestinian media are filled with speculation over whether Obama will visit the site. The U.S. embassy has not said if he will. A senior Palestinian official said any such visit must be coordinated via the Palestinians and Jordanians, not via Israel, even though Israel defines Jerusalem as its capital. Sheikh Akrameh Sabri who heads the higher Islamic council said: “Any visitor is welcome to Al-Aqsa, but they should follow the regulations of the Waqf [Muslim religious trust] and enter through the Lions’ Gate and not through Mughrabi Gate, to ensure Muslim sovereignty.”
“The visit shouldn’t have a political theme to it because Al-Aqsa belongs to Muslims only and it is their place of worship and we refuse that any Israeli official accompanies the visitor,” Sabri added.
Echoing that sentiment is Hamas which released a statement calling a potential Obama visit to the site “a diplomatic catastrophe” and “an imminent danger which the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem have never faced.”
Hamas suggested that such a visit would be even more dangerous than were the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem.
Embassy Flooded with Invitations for Obama
In a radio interview in Hebrew, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said his embassy has received invitations from many groups wishing to host the president.
At least 20 Facebook groups have been set up, each called “Obama come to…”, inviting the president to various locations around the country. The Associated Press reports, “Some are cheekier than others, like a sports stadium that hosts a team known for its anti-Arab fans, or a Palestinian town in the West Bank that holds weekly protests against Israel’s separation barrier.”
More than 21,000 have “liked” the Facebook page “Speech for Peace” set up by left-wing activists asking the president to make a speech at the site where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Rabin signed the Oslo peace accords with the PLO in 1993. “Join us in our goal to persuade president Obama to speak to hundreds of thousands of Israelis at Rabin square,” the group said.
Yaniv Shacham, one of the page managers tells the AP, “If he knew that he could fill the square with hundreds of thousands of Israelis … he would see there are many Israelis who support the ideas and ideals he represents and certainly the renewal of peace talks.”
Here’s the artwork they created:
Invitations Obama Is Unlikely to Accept
Right-wing Member of Knesset Orit Strook, who is also a Jewish settler in Hebron, used her first Knesset speech to invite Obama to Hebron to better understand the Jewish connection to Judea and Samaria. The Obama administration has publicly criticized the Israeli government for approving housing units for Jews in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem, as have past administrations.
“We would explain to him that the Land of Israel is not just a refuge for Holocaust survivors, but it is the Promised Land for the Jewish people, the land of our forefathers, who are buried in the Cave.” Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives are believed to be buried in he Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Benny Kashriel who is mayor of Maaleh Adumim, a Jewish settlement outside Jerusalem sent an invitation via the U.S. embassy asking Obama to visit the area known as E-1, where Israel plans to one day build more than 3,000 apartments, a plan the Palestinians and the Obama administration have criticized.
Emphasizing the Strong Ties
The White House has not yet released details of the president’s travel schedule, which will also bring him to Jordan. The administration is signaling he won’t be making any major demands of Israel during the trip. On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said President Barack Obama wants to “listen” when he visits Israel and the Palestinian territories next month. "We're not going to go and sort of plunk a plan down and tell everybody what they have to do."
In interviews earlier this month, Ambassador Shapiro emphasized that Israel will be the first stop on Obama’s first overseas trip of his second term, a choice that only underlines the important relationship.
In an interview with Israel Radio, Shapiro said, “The president’s visit will strengthen the ties between Israel and the US.”
“The United States has a special bond with Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East,” he added.