JERUSALEM — When the White House tweaked President Obama’s upcoming Mideast itinerary to include Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, Israelis feared he wouldn’t have time for a field trip to see their beloved Iron Dome missile-defense system.
No problem, Israeli officials decided. If Obama can’t come to the Iron Dome, the Iron Dome will come to him. One of the five U.S.-funded batteries will be temporarily repositioned to the airport for a photo op with the arriving president.
Obama’s three-day trip to Israel and the West Bank begins Wednesday and offers Israelis a rare opportunity to shine before a global audience. They’re determined not to squander a minute.
Politicians and pundits will schmooze with some of the estimated 500 visiting foreign journalists at a government-sponsored cocktail reception, while special excursions are being offered for visitors to highlight the softer side of Israel, from wine tasting to Christian pilgrimage.
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High-technology companies are putting together a special exhibit of their accomplishments at the Israel Museum, and the Jerusalem International Ice Festival is creating a frozen sculpture in the president’s likeness.
The trip has an official government logo (U.S. and Israeli flags morphed into one), a slogan (“Unbreakable Alliance”) and a new smartphone app launched by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office to track every step.
With Palestinian peace talks stalled and no sign Obama will use the trip to pressure Israel to make new concessions, Israelis are hoping to use the long-anticipated visit to cast themselves in a more positive light: as a world-class society and close U.S. ally.
“Israel does not get many opportunities for positive international attention,” said Gabriel Weimann, a political-communications experts at Haifa University. “Israel will try to use this as a chance to market itself and show there is more to the country than conflict.”
Israel is no stranger to the international limelight, but it usually focuses on the West Bank occupation, settlement construction and threats to bomb Iran’s purported nuclear-weapons program.
Aside from U.S. presidential visits, the only other time so many foreign journalists go to Israel is usually during wars and military confrontations, such as last year’s eight-day conflict in Gaza Strip.
For a country often facing international criticism, a U.S. presidential visit is a big deal, officials say.
Jerusalem city workers are busily repairing roads, fixing street lighting and hanging an estimated 1,000 U.S. and Israeli flags. The historic Old City walls will have special lighting so the president can enjoy the view from his King David Hotel suite.
Thousands of extra police and other security personnel will be dispatched to clear and secure roads at an overall estimated price tag for Israel of nearly $4 million, though much of the cost of security and accommodation will be borne by the U.S.
Hoping to avoid an embarrassing public confrontation over settlement construction, government officials said Netanyahu has ordered a temporary halt to all hearings or approvals of Jewish housing in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The international community views such housing as illegal.
In 2010, approval of 1,600 housing units in the east Jerusalem development of Ramat Shlomo during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden created a diplomatic rift.
The Government Press Office is focusing on the hundreds of journalists expected to cover the trip, 250 traveling with Obama and another 250 arriving independently, director Nitzan Chen said.
He noted that with so much regional upheaval in recent years, attention on Israel has diminished and the trip offers a chance to regain some of that. “We’re not leading the news anymore,” Chen said.
The fact that there probably won’t be big breaking stories opens a window for Israel to fill the news hole, he said. Chen’s office is hoping to ferry journalists to meet rocket-attack victims near the Gaza Strip or to see the unstable Syrian border, but those looking for something lighter can tour a winery or take an evening stroll through the Old City.
Despite efforts to show Israel as more than a land of conflicts, the itinerary for Obama will include visits to a model of the destroyed Second Temple of Jerusalem and to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum complex.
That focus on Israel’s suffering led Haaretz newspaper columnist Uri Misgav to quip that Obama “will be treated to Jerusalem’s full-dress victim show, a modern Via Dolorosa,” referring to the trail that Christians believe Jesus took to his Crucifixion.
Chen said the campaign is about education, not spin.
“We want to make sure that everyone understands the history and background about the conflict,” he said. “We’re focusing on the press because they are part of the way we can persuade the entire world that we are right.”