Jerusalem – A week before President Barack Obama is set to arrive in the region, Middle East politics are already casting a cloud over the visit as Israeli and Palestinian officials plan a series of events to promote their agendas.
Jerusalem city officials are offering visiting journalists a free tour of Israel’s most contentious archaeological excavation, a sprawling dig in the heart of contested east Jerusalem. Israel has also suggested that journalists could avoid going to the West Bank with Obama when he meets with Palestinian leaders.
On the other side of the divide, Palestinian officials hope to introduce the U.S. president to the family of a prisoner held by Israel. Activists say they will also greet Obama with posters and demonstrations meant to draw attention to life under Israeli military occupation.
These events offer a glimpse of the political minefield Obama will have to navigate when he visits Israel and the West Bank next week, the first time he has come to the area as president. Each side will be trying to win his support for some of the most contentious issues between them.
Israel will be looking for assurances that the U.S. is serious about stopping Iran’s suspect nuclear program. Obama will also be seeking to repair a strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While he has said he will not present any grand peace plan, Obama will also be under pressure to convince the Palestinians that he is serious about getting peace efforts restarted – and presumably pressing Israel to make new concessions.
With so much at stake, Israelis and Palestinians are hoping to capitalize on their moment in the spotlight.
In a statement to reporters, Jerusalem municipal officials said they would be “taking advantage” of the visit to put the holy city’s best face forward. Crews have been pulling up weeds along the roads Obama’s motorcade will take. Decorative lights will be illuminated all night long on the ancient walls of the Old City, opposite Obama’s hotel, “to allow the president to view them from his room and for the hundreds of journalists broadcasting throughout the night to the U.S. to see the city’s beauty.”
City officials are also promising to escort journalists to “important and famous historical sites.” Among the spots are the “City of David,” a politically sensitive archaeological site in an Arab neighborhood just outside the Old City.
The dig, named for the biblical King David thought to have ruled from the spot 3,000 years ago, was conducted by Israeli government archaeologists. The project has generated controversy because it was funded by a nationalist Jewish group that buys up properties in Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, then moves Jewish settlers into the homes – which critics say is meant to make it impossible to divide the city in a future peace deal.
Palestinians and some Israeli archaeologists have also criticized the City of David dig for what they say is an excessive focus on Jewish remains, and have called into question some of the dig’s claims that attribute ruins to the King David.
East Jerusalem, home to the Old City and its sensitive holy sites, was captured by Israel in 1967 and subsequently annexed in a move that has never been internationally recognized. The Palestinians also claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Resolving the competing claims to the area is the most explosive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Brachie Sprung, an adviser to the mayor, said the City of David is one of Jerusalem’s most popular attractions. She rejected suggestions that the free tours were politically motivated.
“In 2012 the city of Jerusalem experienced record breaking tourism which boosted economic growth, benefitting all segments of the population,” Sprung said in an email.
After spending the first day of his visit next Wednesday with Israeli officials, Obama is scheduled to journey to the West Bank the following day for talks with the Palestinians.
But Israel’s Government Press Office says journalists need not make the trip, which involves crossing through a military checkpoint. It said a special media center in Jerusalem will provide a live feed of Obama’s meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “in order to obviate the need to travel back-and-forth to the Palestinian Authority areas.”
GPO Director Nitzan Chen said the live feed was meant solely for convenience. “We are not encouraging people to go or not” to go to the West Bank, Chen said.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, are intent on showing the president what life is like under Israeli occupation. Abbas leads a self-rule government that enjoys limited autonomy in the West Bank. But Israel wields overall control of the area, which the Palestinians claim as the heartland of their future state.
Palestinian officials said they have notified American officials that they want Obama to meet the family of a Palestinian prisoner held in Israel. The Palestinians said the U.S. hasn’t replied.
The subject of prisoners is emotional for the Palestinians. Most Palestinians have a relative who served time in Israeli jails, and prisoners are widely seen as heroes battling Israeli occupation. Israel sees many of the prisoners as terrorists.
Upon reaching Ramallah, just a short distance from Jerusalem, Obama will be greeted by large posters with his headshot that read, “President Obama: Don’t bring your smartphone to Ramallah … We have no 3G in Palestine.”
Israeli authorities, who control cellular networks in the West Bank, have not granted Palestinian telecommunication companies 3G frequencies. A spokesman for the Israeli Communications Ministry said those frequencies are not available for Palestinian use.
Palestinian officials said unknown private activists hung the banners.
Another private group, calling itself “Palestinians for Dignity,” said it will greet Obama by raising black flags and launching thousands of black balloons into the sky to protest American policy. The Palestinians have long accused the U.S. of being biased toward Israel.
Israeli students at a university in the West Bank settlement of Ariel are also accusing Obama of bias, saying they were not invited to an Obama speech in Jerusalem planned for college students. Students from other Israeli universities have been invited.
“We are shocked and very surprised at the discrimination and the inequality,” said Shay Shahaf, chairman of the student association at Ariel University, in a text message. The U.S. Embassy and Ariel University had no comment.
The international community, including the U.S., strongly opposes Israeli settlement construction in occupied territories where the Palestinians hope to build their state.