Barack Obama climbs aboard Air Force One tonight for what is, in some circles, the most anticipated trip of his precedency: a two-day visit to Israel and the West Bank. Officially, the President is not there to negotiate a peace deal or twist arms or doodle a new version of the ever-changing "road map." However, if any progress is going to be made on the Mideast peace front (or the Iran situation) this trip will be the pivotal moment for anything he hopes to accomplish there in his second term.
The mood awaiting Obama upon his arrival might be summed up by these two images. The one above, where Israeli pastry students construct a chocolate Barack Obama. And the one below, where Palestinian activists made a giant Obama poster so that they could throw it on the ground and drive over it with their cars. Opinions may be split on the American President, but the opinions are not ones to be taken lightly.
That isn't even to say that all Israelis are thrilled to see him visit, of course. Many of them see Obama's first term in office as a never ending series of slights, from his 2009 trip to Cairo (that did not include a stop in Israel) to the infamous foot on the desk phone call to his alleged snubbing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a U.N. General Assembly meeting last year. The fact that Obama waited four years to take his first trip to Jerusalem is already a sore spot and the president has been heavily criticized on both sides of the ocean for his supposedly icy treatment of Netanyahu. Both men will have a lot to talk about when he arrives in Tel Aviv.
Fortunately, the President's schedule allots plenty time for chit-chat this time around. The President leaves for Tel Aviv tonight, arriving Wednesday morning, Israel time. Then, after making a brief stop off to see an Iron Dome battery, he will spend the rest of the day in one-on-one meetings with President Shimon Peres and Netanyahu. His one scheduled meeting with Netanyahu became three and the Prime Minister will now get seven hours of Obama's time on Wednesday, giving them ample room to discuss the most pressing area of disagreement—what to do about Iran.
The next day, Obama will actually travel to Ramallah in the West Bank, giving Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas five hours of his own to discuss the possibility of a future Palestinian state. Again, these aren't formal "two-state" negotiations, but the goal of the president's visit is to prove Obama is ready to be a partner to both sides—if they're willing to partner with him. One place he won't be visiting is Gaza, leaving the Hamas leadership there completely out of the loop. Other potentially potent symbols, like talk of the imprisoned spy Jonathan Pollard and a visit to the Temple Mount, will mostly be avoided.
The most important event of the trip won't be a meeting, though. It will be a speech that the president will give in Jerusalem on Thursday. The overarching theme the White House has stressed is that this whole endeavor is a chance to speak directly to the Israeli people, convincing them that that they still have a friend in the U.S. He needs to assure the Israelis that when he asks Israel to pull back on the rhetoric against Iran, he still has their best interests at heart, but also "that when push comes to shove, the U.S. will take action." It might be easier to convince them than Netanyahu, but if he can't convince either, then this whole trip will have been for nothing.
With the politics over, Obama's final day in Israel will be spent on a cultural tour, visiting the graves of Israel statesmen, the Holocaust Museum, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The trip concludes with an overnight stay in Jordan, where he will meet with King Abdullah and visit the ancient city of Petra before heading home on Saturday.