President Obama aims to encourage religious tolerance and political engagement by young people during his first trip to Israel next week, the White House said, echoing the themes of his 2009 speech in Cairo.
The president leaves Tuesday night for Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. He turned down an invitation to address the Israeli legislature in favor of a convention speech to university students and opted to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, both highly symbolic decisions.
“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 … would allow him to speak not just to political leadership, who we'll be meeting with on the trip, but to the Israeli public.”
Rhodes said the decision to visit the church built atop the birthplace of Jesus Christ was also meant to convey his hopes for a more peaceful future in a region long wracked by violence.
“In these [Arab Spring] transitions,” he said, “we've underscored the need to protect the rights of the minority and we've underscored the need for pluralism and I think the visit to the church of the Nativity is intended to send that signal.”
The trip is mostly aimed at reassuring stalwart U.S. allies Israel and Jordan about the administration's commitment to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon and seeking peaceful solutions to the Palestinian and Syrian crises.
“At a time of uncertainty and change in the region, there's great importance in our leaders getting together and engaging in some very intensive consultations,” said Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel. “I think [Israelis] are hopeful that consultations between our leaders early in their new terms will chart the course for making progress on all those issues in the months and in the years ahead.”
First Lady Michelle Obama won't be accompanying the president on the trip, Rhodes said. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry will be tagging along.
He also said it was possible that both the president and Vice-President Joe Biden might be abroad simultaneously – Biden is attending Pope Francis I's inaugural mass on Tuesday – a highly unusual occurrence.
“We do take those considerations into account and do prudent planning to ensure that we're prepared for any contingency,” Rhodes said. “And we often seek to coordinate their travel for that purpose.”
Obama arrives in Jerusalem Wednesday and will be greeted at the airport by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After the arrival ceremony, Obama will visit a U.S.-funded Iron Dome battery – “one of the clearest manifestations of our support for Israel and its security,” Rhodes said – and have one-on-one meetings with both leaders throughout the afternoon, followed by a press conference with Netanyahu and a working dinner.
On Thursday, Obama will visit the Israel museum and view the Dead Sea scrolls – a “testament of the ancient Jewish attachment to Israel,” Rhodes said – and view Israeli technological innovations. He will then have a bilateral meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, followed by a press conference and working lunch. He'll then meet with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and visit a Palestinian youth center to “hear directly” from young people.
The president will then deliver his speech to the Israeli people at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, before having dinner with President Peres.
On Friday, Obama will visit Mount Herzl, site of Israel's national cemetery, and lay a wreath at the tombs of political zionism founder Theodor Herzl and assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before making remarks at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. He'll then tour Bethlehem's church of the Nativity before heading to Jordan that afternoon.
After a bilateral meeting with King Abdullah, Obama will have a joint press conference and a dinner with the king.
Finally, on Saturday Obama will travel to the ancient Nabatean capital and World Heritage Site Petra. In his meetings with Jordanian officials, Rhodes said, Obama will discuss regional security issues, the Syrian situation and the related refugee crisis, as well as prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace and political reform in the kingdom and the broader region.
“As we look at the transitions in the Arab World,” Rhodes said, “there are many different models taking place in many different countries. Some are going to be very dramatic, as we saw in Egypt. Some are going to be more steady over time, as we're seeing in Jordan.
“But we believe the Jordanians are very sincere and committed to the reform agenda. And the president wants to reinforce to make continued progress in that regard, because ultimately reform is the path to lasting stability.”