U.S. President Barack Obama lands in Israel a week from Wednesday and his impending visit has been brought into focus as the commentary, debate, criticism and rumor has begun to crystallize.
Speaking at the prestigious annual Herzliya Conference Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told a panel on US-Israel ties, that there is significance in Obama making his trip to Israel, the first visit of his second term.
He also said that President Obama does not dislike Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rumors to that effect are “incorrect.”
The ambassador said the release of convicted American-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, currently serving a life sentence, was unlikely. “I’m aware that this is a matter that many Israelis want to solve,” Shapiro said. “There are voices in the United States that aggressively oppose it, because of what he did. I do not know what will happen, but I do not expect any announcements about this during the visit.”
It was reported Tuesday that President Obama is planning a symbolic visit to the Shrine of the Book, which houses the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls, written in Hebrew and other ancient tongues.
“This will show the historical reality of Israel being in the hands of the Jews for thousands of years,” U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told The New York Post.
Obama’s visit isn’t meant to just satisfy observers. He will also spend time meeting with Israelis face to face. One of those Israelis will be the newly crowned Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw, who has been invited to dine with Obama at President Shimon Peres’s residence, Army Radio reported.
The encounter will carry a special significance: During the Miss Israel pageant Aynaw mentioned American civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of her role models “He fought for justice and equality, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here: I want to show that my community has many beautiful qualities that aren’t always represented in the media,” she said.
Elements of President Obama’s visit have drawn criticism. On Wednesday MK Yoni Chetboun berated him on Israel Radio for choosing to address the Israeli public at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center rather than the Knesset and for inviting students from all universities except the Judea and Samaria-based Ariel University to attend it.
“He [Obama] chose not to speak before the Knesset, saying he wasn’t coming to Israel for political reasons, but at the same time decided he’s meeting with students from the universities, except for Ariel University, which is a political decision. It’s exclusionary,” Chetboun’s spokesman Ohad Cohen told The Times of Israel.
“Israel decided that Ariel is a full-fledged university. So does Obama not recognize Israel’s decisions?” Cohen asked rhetorically.
In a meeting with a group of Arab Americans earlier this week, according to reports, President Obama revealed that he will not push the Israelis and Palestinians toward restarting negotiations or outline a new peace initiative, but he will take with him a cash infusion of $500 million – which Congress will soon release – of much needed financial aid to the Palestinian Authority.
One participant at the meeting with Obama told Al Arabiya on condition of anonymity that Obama expressed skepticism on the issue of a long lasting peace being reached between Israel and the Palestinians in the near future, but that he was happy to be visiting the region and expressed remorse for not having done so sooner.
“He said the goal of his trip was to speak to the Israeli people directly,” one of the participants of the meeting said. “He thinks it was a mistake that he didn’t address the Israeli public in his first term.”