Barack Obama's Middle East tour kicks off Wednesday and the White House says priority number one is for the president to speak directly to the Israeli public. One of the highlights of the trip will be on Thursday, when Obama's makes a speech in Jerusalem to an audience of Israeli university students. The event has already generated some controversy though.
Students from Ariel University got on buses Tuesday morning to hold a protest outside the US Consulate in Jerusalem. They say they're being excluded from President Obama's big speech.
American officials invited students from other Israeli universities, so why not Ariel? The US Embassy says it doesn't have a joint program there. But the young people here suspect the real reason has more to do with location.
About 14,000 students attend Ariel University, which sits deep inside the West Bank, on the edge of a large Jewish settlement. It took a long and noisy legal battle, but the institution was granted full status as an Israeli university last year.
Most students I spoke with on campus Tuesday morning told me that's old news now. And they're disappointed President Obama appears to be giving them the cold shoulder.
"I see Ariel as part of this country," said Reut Menahem, a 26-year-old psychology student. She said Obama would be missing an opportunity if he doesn't engage with students here.
"Even though you don't agree with some people, doesn't mean you shouldn't hear them," she said. "It doesn't mean, you know, answer some questions they have. Just hear what the other has to say. This is the main principle that I think we should all follow. And it will be a better place if we all know it. Just listen to what the other has to say and we cannot agree. We can agree to disagree."
In that same spirit of engagement, activists from Israeli settlements say they would be keen for a visit from President Obama this week. Avi Zimmerman is with the Ariel Development Fund. After decades of a failed peace process, Zimmerman says it would make perfect sense for Barack Obama to engage Israelis living on the other side of the "Green Line" that divides Israel from the West Bank.
"You cannot solve any situation by talking about communities, either about the Israeli or the Palestinian communities. The only way to make peace is between neighbors," Zimmerman said.
"Perhaps we don't need anyone from the outside meddling in our business, but if we do, they need to come here. To have meetings elsewhere is simply irrelevant."
If Obama did decide to tour the settlement of Ariel, Zimmerman says he would show him the industrial zone that employs several thousand Palestinians. He would talk about joint research projects at the university between Israelis and Palestinians. And he would introduce him to some of Ariel's 20,000 residents. But what about long-standing US support for the two-state solution?
"It's really easy to think about a Palestinian state when you don't have to pay the price for it," said Tamar Asraf. Asraf is spokeswoman for the Binyamin Regional Council of West Bank settlements. Around 60,000 Israeli settlers live in her region. She said any peace agreement that requires evacuating tens of thousands of Israeli settlers from their homes is no solution.
"I think that we have to be here because first of all, it's our homeland. And second of all because I think the future of Israel will be under a huge question mark if we're not going to be here. I think we cannot allow ourselves to have another enemy country in this area. We have enough enemies around us," Asraf said.
Asraf helped produce a YouTube video to woo President Obama. It features down-home bluegrass music. And she said the president will already be visiting Ramallah — the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank — so, why doesn't he also visit one of the settlements nearby?
But to get the setters' view of things, Obama doesn't really have to. And that's because of the makeup of the new Israeli government. The new defense minister advocates expanding the settlements. The new housing minister lives in a settlement and belongs to a political party that opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. And then there's the foreign minister-in-waiting, who also lives in a settlement, and says freezing settlement growth as a concession to the Palestinians is not an option.
Houses in the Jewish settlement of Eli (left foreground), sit above Route 60 in the West Bank, which runs from Jerusalem to Nablus. (Photo: Matthew Bell)
Ariel University students demonstrated outside the US Consulate in Jerusalem on Tuesday. They say they were excluded from President Obama's upcoming speech this week. (Photo: provided by Shai Gill of Ariel University's student council)
Around 15,000 students attend Ariel University, which is located in an Israeli settlement deep in the West Bank. (Photo: Matthew Bell)