This question has been haunting President Obama ever since he took office: When will he visit Israel?
Israelis wanted to see Obama come over right after his June 2009 visit to Egypt in which he gave his famous Cairo speech to the Muslim world. But Obama passed on the opportunity.
Since then, the issue has been raised time and again, by Israelis, by Jewish activists, and mainly by critics of the Obama administration. The latest round was just before President Obama’s speech at AIPAC on May 22. The Israeli press reported that this time it was for real — Obama was going to announce an upcoming visit to Israel. He even had an invitation to attend President Shimon Peres’s conference the following month. But Obama passed once again. When asked in meetings, his advisers repeat the same line: The President wants to visit Israel, it’s just a matter of scheduling. But looking back at history may put this whole discussion in context.
A visit to Israel during a president’s first years in office isn’t a must. In fact, it is rather a rare occasion.
President George W. Bush, hailed by Israelis as a great friend of the Jewish state, visited Israel twice, but both events took place deep in his second term. Bush first visited Israel in January 2008, a year before leaving the White House and then once again in May of 2008, to mark Israel’s 60th anniversary.
His Father, President George H.W. Bush served only one term and never got around to visiting Israel. Bush’s relations with the Shamir government in Israel were strained and ended on a sour note as the Israeli government refused to freeze settlement as demanded by the Bush administration.
Another Republican president who didn’t visit Israel was Ronald Reagan. Widely liked by the U.S. Jewish community, Reagan wasn’t big on foreign travels and focused mainly on Europe at the critical era in which the Iron Curtain began to crumble.
Gerald Ford never made it to Israel either.
Richard Nixon did visit Israel. It was in June of 1974, two months before his resignation.
As to Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton still holds the record with four visits to Jerusalem during his eight years in office. Most of Clinton’s visits were purely business trips and were tied to key events in the region. In October 1994 he came to Israel following the signing of the peace accord with Jordan which he officiated. A year later, in November 1995 Clinton was in Jerusalem again, this time to attend the funeral of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Clinton made two other visits, in March of 1996 and in December 1998, both related to his attempts to get the Israeli–Palestinian peace process back on track.
Jimmy Carter, another American president involved in peace brokering, visited Israel once during his first and only term in office. His visit took place in March 1979, less than a year before leaving the White House. Carter spoke at the Knesset following the signing of the Israeli–Egyptian peace treaty.
The bottom line: Some presidents visit Israel, others don’t. For most it is not the top item on their travel agenda.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.