The real purpose of Obama’s visit to Israel is to give a “high profile” speech to the “youth” of Israel calling for a renewed push for peace and framing Israel’s relationship with the United States in terms of the peace process.
In 2008, Bush visited Israel and addressed the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Back then he began with, “It is a rare privilege for an American President to address the Knesset. Although the Prime Minister told me there is something even rarer – to have just one person in this chamber speaking at a time.”
Clinton addressed the Knesset in 1994. Even Carter did it in 1979. Neither Reagan nor Bush I traveled to Israel and so the issue never came up.
It’s certainly not mandatory, but it’s common protocol. Obama addressed the British Parliament on his visit. He also found the time to address the Parliament of Ghana, the Indian Parliament and the Australian Parliament… so it’s clearly something that he does.
But Obama is not going to address the Israeli parliament or Knesset, instead he’ll be using the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, better known to some as Binyenei HaUma.
1. Obama’s Cairo speech was given at Cairo University. Carter had addressed the Egyptian Parliament. Obama could have done it too, but giving a speech away from parliament showed disapproval of the Egyptian government and a ploy to suggest to the opposition that he would support their revolution.
2. Even though the last Israeli election rewarded the left quite a bit, with a big win for Yesh Atid, Obama is still choosing to stay away from the Knesset.
Instead Obama is bringing in student “representatives” from Israeli universities, a group that skews to the left. Tellingly, Ariel University, one of the country’s more conservative institutions, has been barred from sending a representative.
3. The entire event signals a lack of confidence in Israel’s government and encourages the left to sabotage Netanyahu. Obama probably sees this as payback.
4. The Knesset would allow Obama limited control, but the huge Convention Center will allow him a large audience that is certain to applaud in the right places.
5. It maintains Obama’s policy of keeping Israel at arm’s length without entirely breaking relations.
This response tips Obama’s hand
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. We obviously have a deep respect for the Knesset as the seat of Israeli democracy, and in the past, the President, again, has made clear the very significant attachment that we place on the fact that both Israel and the United States are democracy. But you also know that the President, around the world, has often spoken to young people. He spoke to young people, for instance, when he traveled to Cairo. 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.
So we’re very excited about the crowd that is being put together. We know that it will represent a very broad range of views within Israel. We welcome the fact that Israel has a very broad spectrum of views that’s a testament to the democracy and diversity of opinion that exists within Israel. And it will be a very important event on the President’s trip.
No doubt. The range will run from left to left. The audience will get the message that Obama wants them to pressure the government for more concessions to terrorists.