Wobbles ahead of Barack Obama's Israel trip


last-minute itinerary changes have played havoc with Israeli preparations for President Barack Obama’s planned 48-hour trip to the Holy Land from March 20-21.

Before the election of Argentinian Pope Francis I on Wednesday night, there had been speculation that Mr Obama might have had to interrupt his visit and attend the installation ceremony if an American pontiff had been chosen.

One of the highlights of Mr Obama’s trip was supposed to be a meeting with IDF soldiers at a battery of the Iron Dome defence system, which was manufactured with US aid.

But the US planners surprised the Israeli team when they decided to add a second West Bank appointment to Mr Obama’s schedule, in addition to one with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah next Thursday.

According to the new plan, Mr Obama will spend a couple of hours in Bethlehem on Friday, touring the Church of Nativity, and from there will go to Ben Gurion Airport before flying on to Jordan.

Anxious not to miss a photo-op, the Israeli side has moved one of the Iron Dome batteries to the old air-force base next to the international airport, and the meeting will take place there, just before Mr Obama takes off.

Besides that, most of the events in the whirlwind visit will conform to protocol, with the exception of a speech to students at the Jerusalem Conference Centre, where the president is planning to speak “directly to the Israeli people”. Mr Obama’s choice of venue has caused some criticism from Israeli politicians who said that the president should address the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and not try to “go around” Israel’s elected representatives.

Some politicians are also unhappy at the reported exclusion of students from West Bank Ariel University from the president’s Jerusalem address.

Another American decision causing dismay among Israelis before the visit was the statement from the White House that there is no change in the policy regarding jailed Israeli-American spy, Jonathan Pollard. Last week, the Knesset held a special debate calling for Mr Pollard’s release.

Mr Obama is not expected to bring a new peace plan with him.

But his invitation to 21-year-old Yityish Aynaw, the first black Miss Israel, to the state dinner has attracted publicity.

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