President Obama will arrive in Israel next Wednesday, only to have to leave again on Friday. In that rather slim stretch of time, he will (among other things): attend formal receptions; lay wreathes at graves; discuss Syria, Iran, and negotiations with the Palestinians; venture into the Palestinian Authority to meet with President Abbas and visit the Church of the Nativity; tour an exhibit of Israeli technological innovations, a model of ancient Jerusalem, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (all blessedly at the same museum); visit a battery of the U.S.-funded Iron Dome anti-missile system; and give a public speech (per Ynet, “the Americans have requested the presence of at least 1,000 Israelis”).
Other than the big speech and Iron Dome review, this is—in essence and particulars—the Standard Trip. It’s the same trip taken by virtually every foreign dignitary to ever land at Ben Gurion Airport, a trip designed to make powerful people feel that they’ve been seen, and regular people feel that their culture has been respected. Alas, the Standard Trip has nearly nothing to do with the lives of actual Palestinians or Israelis.
I’m painfully aware that there’s nothing to be done about this. Diplomatic protocol, time constraints, and security concerns are such that, indeed, the Standard Trip tends to steer well clear of actual lives.But in my ideal world, Obama would pull up a chair at Jerusalem’s Misedet Ima (“Mom’s Restaurant”), order the best kubeh soup he’s ever likely to encounter (I personally prefer the kubeh matfunyah, but the kubeh khamustah is delightful as well), and just talk with folks.
I’d like the President to talk with the brave Israeli women facing down the state in the name of religious freedom; I’d like him to talk with the brave Palestinian activists facing down the occupation with nonviolence.
I’d like him to ask Palestinian day laborers who now ride segregated buses why some of them like the new lines, and Israeli human rights activists why they’re protesting anyway. It might be that no Palestinians would be allowed into Jerusalem to have this conversation—perhaps Obama could ask someone why it’s so hard for Palestinians to get anywhere, within the West Bank or into Israel.
I’d particularly like the President to speak with people like Bassam Aramin, whose 10-year-old daughter was shot by Israeli security forces, and Elik Elhanan, whose 14–year-old sister was killed by a Palestinian terrorist. Both men were once combatants in this horrible war, but both laid down arms in favor of pursuing a just peace through organizations like the Palestinian-Israeli Bereaved Families Forum and Combatants for Peace.
But I’d also like Obama to speak to settlers who believe that their maximalist dreams cannot now be undone, and Palestinians for whom all talk of a two-state solution is now anathema. I’d frankly even like him to sit down with Hamas, because I want the American President to really hear just what the two-state solution—the very solution he and his Administration support—is up against, how many true believers stand poised to make such a peace agreement impossible.
Starting, in my opinion, with the Prime Minister. With the soup gone (and maybe some stuffed grape leaves too), I’d ask Obama to speak frankly with Netanyahu about the many and varied ways he and his government have worked to bring about the failure of any attempts the White House might ever make toward peace. I’d ask Netanyahu to explain why the Jerusalem of which he speaks so forcefully bears so little resemblance to the Jewish people’s actual holy city.
And then I’d like the President to load up the cars and take a short drive over to Israel’s Security Barrier.
It’s true that on his way to meet Abbas and then back from Bethlehem, Obama will see the Wall (it’s 25 feet tall in Jerusalem and currently 305 miles long, so it’s hard to miss) but there’s nothing quite like standing in the shadows and trying to imagine 25 feet of towering concrete slicing through your own town, your own farm, your own family.
As things stand, nearly every part of the President’s trip could be achieved with good WiFi and a friend to lay the wreathes (seriously: click here for the Dead Sea Scrolls; click here for the model of ancient Jerusalem).
But getting to hear the stories of people who live every day with the heartbreaking reality created in no small part by American inaction, and then simply bearing witness at the base of what serves as the single best metaphor for the entire conflict—that’s the kind of thing that requires one’s actual presence.
I hope the President’s advance team is doing at least some of this in his stead. And that someone gets him take-away from Ima’s.