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Why Obama Won’t Go to Rabin Square

One of Barack Obama’s hopes for his Israel visit is to address the Israeli public. Some commentators, such as Yoram Meital interviewed for a Forward article, have expressed the view that this lies at the crux of his trip, with him hoping to talk to Israelis about Iran over their Prime Minister’s head.

But anybody who knows Israel knows how complex the notion of addressing “Israelis” can be, with the country divided by so many religious, ethnic, geographical and class divisions. If fact, one of the least “typical” areas, if such a thing exists, is Jerusalem, often referred to within Israel as a kind of bubble inside the country. It is far more religious and far more Arab than most other areas, and has a mentality and culture all of its own.

All indications, however — including the leaked itinerary — are that Obama’s sole speech to the Israeli public will be in Jerusalem. This is despite a campaign by Israelis and invitation by Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai for him to talk to a huge crowd in the iconic Rabin Square, where the pro-peace rallies of the 1990s took place. Oh, and a tempting invitation to the settlement of Efrat where mayor Oded Revivi offered to help him “realize that the declaration of two states for two peoples is not realistic.”

A large Tel Aviv event — not large enough for him to be obviously talking over Netanyahu — would be a more natural choice than a small-ish event in Jerusalem of around 1,000 people, which is what is being discussed. This city would welcome him more, and most likely be more enthusiastic about his message. So why Jerusalem?

One explanation is logistical. It’s where his meetings are and the time and security operation for him to travel is unnecessary.

Another explanation relates to his audience. It’s all Israelis, via media, and maters little who is actually in the crowd, so long as they clap, or where the speech is so long as there are good communication hook-ups.

Or perhaps he is being ambitious. Instead of preaching to the converted in Tel Aviv, he’s taking on a less receptive audience in Jerusalem.

There’s also the Mitt Romney factor. Let’s remember the importance that Romney invested in the theme of Jerusalem when he visited in the summer. Obama isn’t going to chant a Jerusalem-is-the-capital mantra in the same way that Romney did, but he will probably go to great pains to show that he understands how attached Israelis feel to the city. He will be trying to put to rest the view that he doesn’t understand Israelis or care for their interests, and focusing on Jerusalem is an effective way to show that he does.

Jerusalemites may not be representative of Israelis in general, but honoring Jerusalem, in this case by spending the maximum possible time there, is still the way to Israelis’ hearts. So why should Romney have the monopoly on pictures at a podium overlooking the Old City at sunset?

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