THE AGE: “Obama’s Israel itinerary treads political minefield” 15Mar13 March 15, 2013

by Mark Lander     -    The Age     -     15 March 2013

art-wall-620x349US President Barack Obama plans to visit the Church of the Nativity, but not the Western Wall, when he visits Israel and the Palestinian territories next week.

He will speak at Jerusalem’s convention centre, but not before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

And he will inspect a mobile missile-defence battery, though not one in the field.

These, and a host of other decisions, have been made by the White House as it seeks to orchestrate every minute of Mr Obama’s first visit to Israel as President.

The White House has not yet released Mr Obama’s schedule, although the details have been reported in the Israeli news media, based on leaks from Israeli officials.

Middle East experts have questioned how he can visit the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity’s most sacred sites, without stopping at the Western Wall, which is holy to Jews, or al-Aqsa Mosque, a holy site for Muslims.

”Any presidential visit to Israel is highly sensitive because Jerusalem is the crucible of three world religions, and everything about the Holy Land is highly symbolic and usually contested,” said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel.

The symbolism is even more central on this trip because the White House is playing down hopes that Mr Obama will carry with him a new initiative to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Lacking substance, the optics of the President’s visit will loom even larger.

The visit’s brevity – Mr Obama will be on the ground for barely 48 hours – and its strict security restrictions meant some ideas were rejected.

In 1996, Bill Clinton was eager to go to all three religious sites. His hopes were dashed when Ehud Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem, insisted on accompanying him to al-Aqsa Mosque.

That plan was vetoed by the Palestinian authorities who are the mosque’s custodians, and Mr Clinton cancelled all three stops.

While the White House would not discuss planning, a senior official said the Western Wall, which Mr Obama visited on a trip to Israel during the 2008 presidential campaign, was not feasible because of the extensive security cordon it would have entailed.

In addition to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial that is an obligatory stop for every visiting head of state, Mr Obama will lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the writer who is considered the father of Zionism.

A senior official said the choice of the convention centre reflected the President’s interest in reaching out to younger Israelis, although given the Knesset’s reputation for rambunctious debate, Israeli officials said the White House was also worried about Mr Obama being heckled.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said he was ”very satisfied” with how the trip was coming together.

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