Obama will press Israel to mollify furious Arabs

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Barack Obama is taking a multi-day tour of Arab flashpoints next week, where he will pressure Israeli Jews to appease politically energized Arabs in Egypt, Jordan and other countries.

“It is obviously a good thing that the people in the region are seeking to express themselves democratically,” declared Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

“Israel needs to take into account the changing dynamic and the need to reach out to public opinion across the region as it seeks to make progress on issues like Israeli-Palestinian peace and broader Arab-Israeli peace,’ he insisted.

That task may be very difficult, in part, because a vast majority of Arabs who are living alongside Israel wish to destroy the state.

In December, shortly after the Hamas Islamic government ended its missile-attacks on Israel from its base in the Gaza Strip, a poll reported that the attacks were backed by 88 percent of Arabs in the Gaza Strip and the area around Israel’s capital in Jerusalem. The poll of 1,200 Arabs was conducted by the Arab World Research and Development, based in the city of Ramallah.

Hamas is an Islamic group that believes Jews cannot rule any territory populated by Muslims. It is a branch of the revivalist Muslim Brotherhood, which swept to power during national elections in Egypt in 2011 and 2012.

The new ruler of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, has described Jews as the descendants of “apes and pigs,” and urged perpetual hatred towards Jews, as mandated by passages in Islam’s foundational document, the Koran. (RELATED: White House downplays inflammatory anti-Semitic comments)

The tour from Wednesday to Saturday is designed to increase mutual understanding between Obama and Israelis, and not to push any plan to reconcile the Arabs and Israelis, Rhodes said.

“This is an opportunity for the president to speak directly to the Israeli people … to tell them directly about what guides his approach to this relationship,” Rhodes said.

During his tour of Israel and the adjacent Arab territories, Obama will also visit Mahmoud Abbas, who largely controls the Arab-populated territory around Jerusalem.

Abbas — who was elected to a five-year presidential term more than eight years ago — is under increasing political pressure from the elected Hamas leader in the Gaza strip, whose popularity increased following his rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.

In fact, a December poll showed Abbas has less support than Hamas’ leader, Ismail Haniyeh. The poll of Arab voters in the Palestinian area around Jerusalem, dubbed the “West Bank,” showed that the leader of the Hamas faction in the Gaza Strip would narrowly win an election — 48 points to 45 points — against Abbas.

The poll was conducted in December by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Obama will not be visiting Hamas’ territory in the Gaza Strip.

The visit to Abbas is intended to bolster the president’s clout, Rhodes said.

“We’re very supportive of efforts, for instance, on the West Bank to develop Palestinian institutions and broaden opportunity for the Palestinian people, even as we continue to work for advancements in the peace process,” he said.

During the three-day tour, Obama will visit a series of politically symbolic sites that were picked to reassure the rival forces.

He’s slated to visit an expo of Israel scientific research, as well as a battery of high-tech U.S.-funded Iron Dome missiles that have been used by Israel to destroy Hamas rockets launched from Gaza.

Obama will also go to a museum showing the 2,400 year old Dead Sea Scrolls, which are significant because they undermine Arab claims that the territory of Israel was never ruled by Jews prior to 1948. They “are a testament, of course, to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel,” said Rhodes.

However, Obama will not visit the more potent Jewish sites in Jerusalem — such as the Israeli parliament, archaeological sites, or the wall of the 2,000 year-old Jewish temple. Instead, he’s give a speech to Israelis — and also to Arabs — at a commonplace convention center near the old city of Jerusalem.

He will hold a press conference with Israel’s prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, where he’ll likely face a few tough questions from Israeli journalists. Then he is slated to visit the tombs of two founders of Israel, and of the museum commemorating the mass-murder of Jews by the German National Socialist party.

After the two days in Israel, Obama will travel to Ramallah, the major city run by Arabs outside Jerusalem. He’s to meet with Abbas — who is trying to bolster the weakening clout of his Fatah political party — and hold a press conference.

Obama will also visit the Christian church that marks the spot where Jesus was reportedly born.

“It will be a very powerful experience for the president to be able to have the experience of touring the Church of the Nativity and observing firsthand that history and experience,” said Rhodes.

But the visit will also have a political purpose, he said.

“One of the reasons why we thought it was important for the President to go the Church of the Nativity is [that] … there’s been a very difficult series of challenges for Christian communities in the region — not just in the West Bank, but in places like Syria and Egypt and Iraq,” he said.

In those countries, and also around Jerusalem, many Christians have been attacked by Muslims, and many have been forced into exile.

The visit, Rhodes added, will underscore “the need to protect the rights of minorities.”

After the church visit, Obama will visit the King of Jordan, a U.S. ally, and hold another press conference. In Jordan, he will tour the famous Roman-era ruins at the abandoned city of Petra.

The site, said Rhodes, “is obviously a site that the Jordanian people are very justly proud of.”

Jordan has few natural resources or high-tech businesses.

The president will not use the trip to deliver a speech to Muslims, Rhodes said. That task was accomplished in 2009, when Obama gave a speech in Cairo, Egypt, he said.

“The Cairo speech lays out a framework that holds in terms of how the President views those [Muslim-related] issues,” Rhodes said. “And we’ve made some progress on some of those issues, and less progress on others.”

Follow Neil on Twitter