President Barack Obama will travel to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan next week on his first trip there since taking office, and the schedule is packed with speeches, meetings, and cultural experiences of all kinds.
First Lady Michelle Obama won't be on the trip and Vice President Joe Biden will be at the Vatican attending the formal installment of Pope Francis I, but Secretary of State John Kerry will be with Obama as he visits the region. Nobody expects the president to make any monumental policy announcements or unveil any new plans to revive the Middle East peace process, but Obama will be speaking directly to the Israeli people on their turf for the very first time.
"First of all, let me just say that this is a very important trip for the president. It's his first trip to Israel since becoming president, and the first foreign trip of his second term in office. We felt like this was an important opportunity for the president to go to the region," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said Thursday. "More important than that, in some respects, this is an opportunity for the president to speak directly to the Israeli people."
"Beyond that, it's a very important time for him to also reinforce U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority," Rhodes said. "And then, of course, King Abdullah is a very close ally and partner of the United States and Jordan."
On Wednesday, March 20, Obama will arrive in Tel Aviv and attend an arrival ceremony with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will also view an Iron Dome missile battery there. Then Obama will go to Peres's residence, after which they will make statements. Obama will then go to Netanyahu's residence for a bilateral meeting, have a press conference with the prime minister there, and then join him for a working dinner.
"The president and Prime Minister Netanyahu, as you've heard us say, have spent more time together one-on-one than, frankly, any other leader that the president has spent some time with since he came into office," Rhodes said.
On Thursday, March 21, Obama will begin his day with a visit to the Israel Museum, where he is very much looking forward to seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls, according to Rhodes. He will also visit a technology exhibition at the museum.
After that, Obama will go to Ramallah and hold a bilateral meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, followed by a press conference and then a working lunch. Then Obama will join Prime Minister Salam Fayyad at the Al-Bireh Youth Center, also in Ramallah.
On Thursday afternoon, Obama will go to Jerusalem and deliver a big speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center to an audience that will include students from every major Israeli university, except from Ariel University in the West Bank. The White House explained that invitations were only extended to schools that partner with the U.S. embassy and Ariel is not one of those schools.
"The president's speech I think will focus on the nature of the ties between the United States and Israel, the broad agenda that we work on together on security, on peace, on economic prosperity," said Rhodes. "And I think he'll have a chance to speak to the future of that relationship, so discussing not just the nature of the challenges that we face today, but where the United States and Israel are working to move together as we head into the future of the 21st century."
The Cable asked Rhodes why Obama chose not to speak in front of the Israeli Knesset, as President Bill Clinton did in 1994 and George W. Bush did in 2008. Rhodes said Obama wanted to talk to Israeli youth directly.
"What we told the Israeli government is that the president was very interested in speaking to the Israeli people, and that, in particular, he wanted to speak to young people.... And in this instance, we felt like bringing together an audience of university students from a broad range of partners that our embassy has in Israel would allow him to speak, again, not just to political leadership -- who he'll be meeting with on the trip -- but to the Israeli public and Israeli young people," he said.
On Thursday night, Obama will attend a dinner at Peres's residence. On Friday morning, Obama will go to Mount Herzl and lay wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, and slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. Later on Friday, Obama will visit Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
On Friday afternoon, Obama will move on to Amman, Jordan, where he will be greeted by King Abdullah II and have a bilateral meeting, a joint press conference, and a dinner. On Saturday, Obama will visit the ancient site of Petra and then head back to Washington.
Rhodes said that the Jordan stop was important to Obama for three reasons: it is a security partner, it is heavily involved in the Syria crisis, and it is on a path of reform that could ensure its stability over time.
"We believe that the Jordanians are very sincere and committed to a reformed agenda, and the president wants to reinforce the need to make continued progress in that regard -- because ultimately reform is the path to lasting stability in terms of a government that is a partner of the United States and responsive to the Jordanian people," Rhodes said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.