Preparing for Passover — and the president

Preparing for Passover — and the president

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Preparing for Pesach is not exactly analogous with preparing for a presidential visit, but so much goes into the preparations that sometimes one loses perspective on its purpose, its value, and its meaning. The criticisms and critiques that preceded the president’s visit this week left many wondering, like many an exhausted seder host or hostess, “what do we do this for?”

Between the Israeli elections and the drawn-out process of forming a governing coalition, President Obama was probably within days of having to cancel a trip which Israelis and American Jews have been clamoring for since June 2009. Also looming was the installation of Pope Francis at the Vatican (after all, the political considerations of over 1.2 billion Catholics trump those of less than 16 million Jews).

The president’s trip has important symbolic meaning, even without any detailed substantive meetings or any expected progress on any of the vital regional and bilateral issues. Hopefully, Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will have the opportunity to demonstrate better personal atmospherics between them now that they both have been reelected. This chemistry might well be facilitated by the presence of some of the younger and charismatic new members of the Netanyahu government.

The amount of pre-trip posturing and second-guessing was hysterical. Clearly, both sides want to dictate where the president should go and with whom he ought to meet. As is the case with all state visits, both sides win and lose, while the show goes on. As long as both sides do not lose sight of the big picture, all the sidebars will fall by the wayside. Both countries examined previous presidential trips and both sides considered all their respective constituencies’ concerns. So after Yad Vashem (which is non-negotiable), the president plans to view the Dead Sea Scrolls and not the Kotel; deliver an address to students at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, not politicians in the Knesset; visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and not the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of  Jerusalem; and invite Miss Israel — the first Ethiopian to earn the crown — to the president’s dinner.

The Israelis arranged for the president to inspect the Iron Dome defensive shield, but needed to bring a unit to the airport rather than his going to a military facility to view it.

Unfortunately for Obama, the King David Hotel where he is staying is already prepared for Pesach, so he may need to wait until he gets to Ramallah and Amman before he can enjoy fresh pita.

The White House has repeatedly said that the president is not bringing a new peace proposal for the Israelis and Palestinians to consider, but to be clear President Obama is not going half way around the world to evaluate whether Israeli hummus can meet the standards of that served by the Palestinians or Jordanians. In order that there be no disappointments or let downs, no one is suggesting that the president intends to restart negotiations between the new Israeli government and the Palestinians. However, no one ought to be surprised if there is at a minimum a statement after the visit that both sides have agreed to begin new conversations after Pesach when the new government is fully organized in Jerusalem.

There undoubtedly also will be joint statements on a common view of the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program. Both Israel and the United States will address the humanitarian tragedy in Syria and affirm that they are seeking to prevent the conflict from spilling over into Israel, especially along the Golan Heights.

This trip, like Passover, always looks more daunting before the fact. Only after the holiday does one really have time to consider on what has transpired. In most instances, we sit back, reflect, smile, and say it was worth it. Hopefully, President Obama’s visit to Israel will produce the same reaction on both sides.

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