Eager Israelis send invites to Obama ahead of tour
President Barack Obama is coming to town, and it seems like everyone in Israel wants to be a part of the historic visit.
From West Bank settlers to peace activists, universities to municipalities, Israelis of all stripes are sending out invites to lure Obama their way in bids to bend his ear on the issues that could decide the fate of the region.
Obama's visit, his first to Israel as president, comes during rising tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, years of deadlocked peace efforts and a tense relationship between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Just beneath the surface is the feeling of many Israelis that up to now, Obama's administration has been unsympathetic to Israel, frequently criticizing its policies toward the Palestinians. The U.S. considers its policies balanced, noting that it has opposed resolutions critical of Israel at the U.N.
Despite the differences, the U.S. remains Israel's main world ally.
While Obama's schedule has not been made public, officials and ordinary Israelis alike appear eager to exploit the upcoming tour, also expected to take him to the West Bank and Jordan next month. The Israeli government has released a logo and slogan for the trip, naming it "Unshakable Alliance," and is scouting places for Obama to visit.
Mixed feelings are coloring the invitations.
One has come from Benny Kashriel, mayor of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim, near Jerusalem. Kashriel wants to host Obama in a contested area known as E-1, where Israel envisages construction of more than 3,000 apartments.
Building in the area is contentious because the Palestinians say it would hinder movement between east Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital, and the West Bank. Kashriel said he would take Obama to a hilltop overlooking the area and rebut the Palestinian argument.
"I have no doubt I will convince him to see the truth," said Kashriel, who delivered an invitation through the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Israel revived the E-1 plans late last year in response to the Palestinians' successful bid for U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The announced plans, on the back burner for years, drew unusually sharp criticism from some of Israel's staunchest allies - including the U.S.
The issue of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank in general has drawn much criticism from the U.S. and stands at the heart of a four-year impasse in Mideast peace efforts. The Palestinians have refused to negotiate while Israel continues to build in settlements on the lands they seek for their state. Netanyahu says talks should resume without any preconditions.
Obama has rejected settlements as illegitimate but has done little to force Israel to halt construction.
Appealing to Obama to restart the peace talks, Israelis on the dovish end of the political spectrum have put out a plea on Facebook for Obama to deliver a grand "Speech for Peace" in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, where then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the first interim accords with the Palestinians, was assassinated by an ultranationalist Israeli opposed to his peace moves.
Yaniv Shacham, a manager of the page, which has attracted more than 21,000 "likes," said Obama's ability to reach out to the people, both in his public appearances in the U.S. and on visits abroad, could resonate with Israelis.
"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," Shacham said.
Academic institutions have been vying to host the prestigious guest. One is Bar-Ilan University, the site of a landmark 2009 speech by Netanyahu in which he declared his support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians. That speech ended years of Netanyahu's opposition to Palestinian independence, but his policy offers less than earlier Israeli proposals that did not result in a peace accord.
The mayor of Haifa, a mixed Israeli-Arab port city in northern Israel, has invited Obama to see "the only city in the world where Jews and Arabs have had peaceful relations for more than 100 years," setting an example for Israelis and Palestinians.
At least 20 Facebook groups - each called "Obama come to..." - have sprouted up, inviting Obama to different locations. 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.
Neither the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv nor the White House responded to questions about Obama's schedule and whether he might accept any of the invitations pouring in.
One likely venue could be the Knesset, Israel's parliament, where high-profile visitors including Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Anwar Sadat, the late Egyptian leader who reached a historic peace accord with the Jewish state, all delivered addresses. Israeli media have said officials are undecided because of the possibility of hard-line lawmakers heckling the president, but the acting speaker has asked that Netanyahu invite Obama anyway.
The visit appears to be generating less excitement in the West Bank. Palestinians believe peace efforts are doomed unless the U.S., as Israel's closest ally, pressures Israel to make concessions. The White House has said Obama is not planning any major peace initiative on this trip. The Palestinian Authority refused to comment on the trip on Monday.
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on Israel-U.S. relations at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said Obama is unlikely to accept the invitation of the settlement mayor. A speech aimed at the Israeli public is more likely, but it probably won't happen in the open-air Rabin Square because of security concerns, he said.
"Everything has its connotations and constellations and contexts, so the choice of locations is made very cautiously," said Gilboa, noting that every place Obama visits will be watched carefully and interpreted endlessly. "The purpose of the places he visits will be to leave with an improved image."
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