U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he steps aboard Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base
U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he steps aboard Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, March 19, 2013. Photo by AP
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Kobi Gidon
A worker preparing for U.S. President Obama's visit at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. Photo by Kobi Gidon
Streets blocked off to traffic
Jerusalem streets closed to traffic for U.S. President Barack Obama's visit.

U.S. President Barack Obama will land this afternoon for his first visit to Israel since becoming president over four years ago. He will be received with a ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport and then go to Jerusalem, where he will meet with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The meeting between Obama and Netanyahu will be their 12th, the most that the president has held with any other world leader. These include nine times when Obama was president and Netanyahu prime minister, once when Obama was a senator and twice when Netanyahu was leader of the opposition.

Netanyahu has also invited the heads of the coalition parties, Naftali Bennett, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, as well as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, to tonight’s dinner with Obama.

Despite the numerous meetings between the two leaders, they have been unable to build a relationship of trust and free-flowing conversation. The ideological differences and political rivalries between the two have created tension which they have found hard to overcome. The visit, coming just after Netanyahu has put together a new government and two months after Obama started his second term, is a chance to start again.

Obama is coming at a time when cooperation between him and Netanyahu is more critical than ever. The Iranian nuclear threat and the civil war in Syria are becoming more urgent every day, while the two have very different approaches to the problems.

Obama will take advantage of his visit to speak directly to the Israeli people in a speech he will deliver to over 1,000 university students in Jerusalem. His advisers claim this is the most important part of his visit, as the lack of trust the Israeli public has in Obama is his weak point here. The White House hopes the speech will allow him to win the Israeli public’s trust and forge a connection that will be helpful in dealing with the Iran and Palestinian issues. Obama will try to reach an understanding with Netanyahu on handling the Iranian nuclear threat, and will ask the prime minister to give him further room to maneuver to reach a diplomatic solution. Two weeks after the visit, a new round of talks will start in Kazakhstan between Iran and the Western powers, though it is still far from clear whether any breakthrough can be reached.

Netanyahu does not believe the negotiations with Iran will succeed and wants to hear from Obama what he plans to do if the talks end with no results. Netanyahu wants to know whether Obama will agree to a military option in such a situation. Obama has repeated time after time that he will use any means to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, and will try to convince Netanyahu he will keep his promise.

Obama will also be arriving just after the first conclusive reports on the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Netanyahu has already ordered an attack on a convoy moving anti-aircraft weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and he will want to hear from Obama whether he has an operational plan to prevent chemical and other sophisticated weaponry from reaching terrorist organizations. Netanyahu will make it clear to Obama that Israel will not hesitate to attack similar weapons shipments in the future.

The Palestinian issue will most likely take a back seat to this and other issues.

Palestinians less pleased

The Palestinian Authority has put the finishing touches to its preparations for Obama’s visit. On Monday 10 American helicopters landed one after another at the Muqata presidential compound in Ramallah, carrying security personnel in charge of the visit scheduled for Monday afternoon.

The Palestinians and Americans are working in perfect coordination, said Gen. Adnan Admiri, spokesman for the Palestinian security services.

The U.S. Secret Service has decided that it will be in total control of the inner circle of security surrounding Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Palestinian forces will be responsible for the outer circle and along the roads where the presidential convoy will pass. Large sections of Ramallah are expected to be under curfew during Obama’s visit to the city. Residents of buildings near the Muqata received orders to evacuate their homes while Obama is in the compound.

Obama will meet with Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Later he will meet with young people in Al Bireh. On Friday Obama will tour the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Sources in the PA say this visit is the substitute for the original plan for Obama to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was quickly ruled out due to severe criticism in Islamic circles because such a visit would have been accompanied by Israeli security forces.

In any case, there is little celebration in advance of the visit in the PA. A number of anti-Obama protests have been held in the West Bank.