When President Obama’s itinerary for his upcoming Israel trip was leaked to the press, it appeared to be noticeably safe. It is true that Obama will make a number of important gestures during the visit, chief among them laying wreathes in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, as well as on the graves of Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin. But over the course of his 48-hour stay, Obama will remain mostly in Jerusalem, leaving only to have coffee with Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and to visit an Iron Dome battery.
He is ignoring Tel Aviv completely. The Tuesday afternoon of his trip will be spent touring the Israel Museum, an action that is just so very predictable.
Given that this trip will be subject to immense scrutiny and meticulous talmudic dissection by media and politicos alike, Obama’s caution is understandable. He has to apportion a good deal of his time to meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu, considering the animus that has existed between the two, and the critical importance of the bilateral relationship. His people also must have had to consider his opposition back home.
Short of scaling Masada under the midday sun, there probably isn’t a lot Obama can do to convince the Emergency Committee for Israel wing of American conservatism that he isn’t secretly an ally of Khaled Mashal.
Yet his people’s unimaginativeness is most disappointing, considering the work Obama has to do while he’s in Israel. His principal duty ought to be to reinvigorate the peace process toward a two-state solution, about which nothing has been done since the conclusion of the settlement freeze, in September 2010. Obama must also do more, it follows, to support those in Israel who seek peace — not exclusively the peace camp and its institutions, like Peace Now, which are on the wane, but all Israelis sympathetic to the idea that this conflict must come to a resolution.
With this in mind, the location of his planned speech, set to occur at either the Israel Museum or Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, is wholly inadequate in its tepidness. If Obama is to shatter the present impasse and break through to the Israeli public, all the while demonstrating his and America’s unequivocal commitment to that nation and to peace, he must go to Rabin Square.
The symbolism of a speech in Tel Aviv’s main square would be mighty powerful. Rabin Square has long been the site where Israelis have gathered to protest against Israel’s excesses and to call for an end to the occupation.
As many as 400,000 marched in order to voice their disgust with Israel’s role in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila in 1982, while regular peace rallies were held in Tel Aviv after 1993 and the signing of the Oslo Accords. More recently, the demonstrations of the J14 movement dominated 2011: September 3 saw 450,000 Israelis picket across the nation, including 300,000 in Tel Aviv, demanding social justice.
An Obama rally on Rabin Square would represent a forceful endorsement not only of the social justice and peace movements, but also, more generally, of the right of the Israeli people to effect change from the bottom up.
In this regard, Rabin Square would also present Obama with the best opportunity to speak to Israelis directly and in person. Under the present plans, Obama’s team has requested the presence of just 1,000 Israelis at his Israel Museum lecture. Yet on Rabin Square, Obama would have the chance to address tens of thousands of Israelis, a moment as great and as transcendent as his campaign stop in Berlin in July 2008, when more than 200,000 Germans filled the Strasse des 17 Juni, from the Victory Column to the Brandenburg Gate.
But Rabin Square is also important because it is a site of national trauma: the spot where, on November 4, 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down by Yigal Amir for his role in the Oslo Accords and for his support for its intended consequence, the eventual Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. As well as being a tragic moment for Israeli democracy and pluralism, it is correctly viewed as the beginning of the end of the Oslo process, and as the first of many incidences on the broken road to the present Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
Obama might well be making a stop to place flowers upon the tomb of Rabin, but he can do more to recognize the significance of his death and repair the wound left by Rabin’s assassination through a clearer and more certain affirmation of his principals and legacy — a willingness not just to end the occupation, but also to do so only from a position of strength and security.
Obama should return to the place of Rabin’s murder and make clear to the Israeli public his own dedication both to Israel’s defense and to the peace process to which Rabin gave his life.
Ron Huldai, mayor of Tel Aviv-Yafo, lent his support to the nascent campaign to have Obama come to the city and speak. “I would be happy and honored to invite him to Tel Aviv, where he is welcome to address the Israeli public at Rabin Square,” Huldai wrote, “a location that is a symbol of the Israeli democracy and of our ongoing desire to live a peaceful and normal life.”
President Obama, would you please accept?
Liam Hoare is a freelance writer whose work on politics and literature has been featured in the Atlantic and the Jewish Chronicle.