Friday, March 15, 2013

  • Friday, March 15, 2013
  • Elder of Ziyon
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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release
March 14, 2013


Via Conference Call

4:08 P.M. EDT

MR. RHODES: Thanks, everybody, for joining this call to preview the President's trip to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. I'm joined on the call today by our U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, who is known to you all, as well. I'll make some opening comments and go through the President's schedule. Then Dan may add a few comments and then we'll take your questions.

First of all, let me just say that this is a very important trip for the President. It's his first trip to Israel since becoming President, and the first foreign trip of his second term in office. We felt like this was an important opportunity for the President to go to the region. In Israel, we felt that with a new Israeli government coming into place and a new U.S. term here, this is an important opportunity for the President to consult with the Israeli government on the broad range of issues where we cooperate.

We obviously cooperate very closely with Israel on security, intelligence and economic issues. And there will be a broad agenda for our governments to address while the President is in Israel, including our efforts to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the ongoing situation in Syria, the developments in the wider region that pose both opportunities and security challenges, and efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace among the agenda.

More important than that, in some respects, this is an opportunity for the President to speak directly to the Israeli people. The President has a very strong record of support for Israel and its security, but we also understand that there is no substitute for the President of the United States going to Israel and delivering that message directly to the Israeli people. And so, he is particularly looking forward to the opportunity to spend some time with the people of Israel and to tell them directly about what guides his approach to this relationship.

Beyond that, it's a very important time for him to also reinforce U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority -- and I'll get to that in the schedule, but of course, the United States has made a significant investment in the Palestinian Authority as the legitimate leadership of the Palestinian people. And we're very supportive of efforts, for instance, on the West Bank to develop Palestinian institutions and broaden opportunity for the Palestinian people, even as we continue to work for advancements in the peace process.

And then, of course, King Abdullah is a very close ally and partner of the United States and Jordan. We cooperate with Jordan on a broad range of security issues. That includes, of course, the peace process. It also includes addressing the very grave humanitarian crisis in Syria, including the significant refugee population within Jordan. And the U.S. is providing substantial assistance to Jordan and other international partners to help allay that refugee crisis.

We're also very supportive of the political reform efforts within Jordan. Recently, of course, there were parliamentary elections. We'd like to see continued momentum on the political reform agenda that the King has supported, so we will have an opportunity to address those issues.

Let me just go through the schedule now.

The President will arrive in Israel on Wednesday of next week. He will begin his program with an arrival ceremony at the airport with both President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Following that arrival ceremony, where each of the leaders will speak, the President will view an Iron Dome battery. The U.S. investments in support for the Iron Dome System has been one of the clearest manifestations of our support for Israel and its security. We’re very proud that the Iron Dome System has saved numerous Israeli lives in helping to deal with the threat from rocket fire. The President's visit to the Iron Dome battery, again, is a signal of that continued support for Israel and its security, and the close relationship and partnership that we have on the security issues.

Following that, the President will have meetings throughout the afternoon with both President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu. First, he will meet with President Peres at his residence. The two Presidents will have a chance to spend some time together and make statements as well. Following that, the President will go to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s residence, where he’ll have a chance to have a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, followed by a press conference, and then followed by a working dinner.

The President and Prime Minister Netanyahu, as you’ve heard us say, have spent more time together one-on-one than, frankly, any other leader that the President has spent some time with since he came into office. They’ll have an opportunity to have a very wide-ranging discussion on the various issues -- security, political, and economic -- that I referenced earlier. And that will conclude the President’s first day there.

The next day, Thursday, the President will begin by going to the Israel Museum. At the Israel Museum, he will view the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are a testament, of course, to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel and, frankly, a marvel that the Israelis have restored within the Israel Museum in a very substantial, impressive way. So the President very much looks forward to the opportunity to see the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Following that, he’ll be visiting a technology exposition, also at the museum, in which he’ll be able to see some of the remarkable signs and technological progress that’s been made within Israel, some of the remarkable innovation that is helping to fuel the Israeli economy and, frankly, the global economy. And it’s also the foundation of significant U.S. and Israeli economic cooperation. And I think, again, seeing the ancient connection through the Dead Sea Scrolls and then the future that is being forged in Israel through the technology exposition I think will be a very powerful experience.

Following that, the President will travel to Ramallah. In Ramallah, he will have a bilateral meeting with President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. And then the two leaders will have a press conference and then they’ll have a working lunch together. Again, the United States has supported the significant institution-building that the Palestinian Authority has undertaken in the West Bank. It’s a chance to discuss our continued support for the PA, as well as to discuss ways to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace going forward.

Following the working lunch, the President will join Prime Minister Fayyad at the Al-Bireh Youth Center, also in Ramallah. Again, this is an opportunity for the President to see firsthand some of the work that’s being done to develop institutions on the West Bank, and also to meet with a range of Palestinian young people and hear directly from them as well. So that will complete that portion of his time in Ramallah.

Then he will go to the Jerusalem International Convention Center later that afternoon, where he will deliver a speech to the Israeli people. The speech -- frankly, the President very much wanted to have the opportunity to speak not just to Israelis, but to Israeli young people, so we've worked to help build a crowd that will bring in a significant number of Israeli university students from the many universities that our embassy partners with within Israel.

The President's speech I think will focus on the nature of the ties between the United States and Israel, the broad agenda that we work on together on security, on peace, on economic prosperity. And I think he'll have a chance to speak to the future of that relationship, so discussing not just the nature of the challenges that we face today, but where the United States and Israel are working to move together as we head into the future of the 21st century.

Following that speech, later that night, the President will be hosted at a dinner by President Peres. And President Obama was honored to present President Peres with the Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor, last year at the White House. Now he is very much looking forward to having a dinner with President Peres and a broad range of prominent Israeli leaders at the state dinner at the President's residence. And then, that will conclude the program on Thursday.

On Friday, the President will begin his day by going to Mt. Herzl, where he will lay a wreath at both the graves of Herzl and Rabin, speaking, of course, to the significant contributions that both of those huge figures in Israeli history and Jewish history -- to their contribution.

Following those wreath-layings, he will visit Yad Vashem and tour Yad Vashem, and have a chance to lay a wreath and make remarks there, of course, marking the very somber and powerful history of the Holocaust. The President was able to travel there previously in 2008 as a senator and was very deeply moved by that experience, and it's an important opportunity to once again mark that particular tragic element of our shared history.

Following the visit to Yad Vashem, the President will travel to Bethlehem where he will tour the Church of the Nativity. Both Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity are obviously very important sights in the West Bank -- important to the Palestinian people, also important to Christians in the region and around the world. And so it will be a very powerful experience for the President to be able to have the experience of touring the Church of the Nativity and observing firsthand that history and experience.

That will conclude the President's time in Israel and the West Bank.

He will then travel to Jordan. And that afternoon, after he arrives in Jordan, there will be an arrival ceremony. Then he will have a bilateral meeting with King Abdullah. The two leaders will have a joint press conference. Then that night, the President will be hosted at a dinner by King Abdullah. And he will be spending the night there in Amman.

Then the next morning, the President will travel to Petra, which is obviously a sight that the Jordanian people are very justly proud of. And so he'll have an opportunity to see something that is of great value to people all across the region and particularly in Jordan.

And I anticipate an agenda that will cover regional security issues, the situation in Syria, the very significant refugee challenge within Jordan, the Israeli-Palestinian issue and our ongoing support for political and economic reform in Jordan.

One interesting question:
Q: I understand that the President was invited to speak before the Israeli Knesset, but instead you guys chose to have the speech at the Convention Center. Can you explain the logic of that decision? I know that Clinton spoke in the Knesset in ’94; George W. Bush in 2008. Was this a conscious decision to avoid the Knesset, or was there another explanation?

MR. RHODES: Sure, Josh, thanks for the question. We had discussions with the Israeli government about where the President would speak and they discussed a range of options with us. So, first of all, they were open to a range of options and did not express a strong preference in that regard.

What we told the Israeli government is that the President was very interested in speaking to the Israeli people, and that, in particular, he wanted to speak to young people. We obviously have a deep respect for the Knesset as the seat of Israeli democracy, and in the past, the President, again, has made clear the very significant attachment that we place on the fact that both Israel and the United States are democracy. But you also know that 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 from a broad range of partners that our embassy has in Israel would allow him to speak, again, not just to political leadership, who he’ll be meeting with on the trip, but to the Israeli public and Israeli young people.

So as we put together the schedule, what you see is a significant amount of time that the President will be spending with Israel’s political leadership, a significant amount of time that he’ll be investing in some very iconic cultural sites with the Israeli people. But the speech is a moment where he’ll be in a room with the Israeli public, and that really was our priority as we thought through what would make the best venue for the speech.

So we're very excited about the crowd that is being put together. We know that it will represent a very broad range of views within Israel. We welcome the fact that Israel has a very broad spectrum of views that’s a testament to the democracy and diversity of opinion that exists within Israel. And it will be a very important event on the President's trip.

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