Updated: April 16, 2013 3:52PM
WASHINGTON — A highlight of President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel next week will be a major speech in Jerusalem — with an audience full of students — where he will speak directly to Israelis for the first time.
That’s just one stop of Obama’s first foreign trip of his second term, designed to show — through substance and symbolism — the ironclad U.S. commitment to Israel, as the nation faces a potential nuclear threat from Iran and conflicts in Egypt and Syria threaten Israeli security.
The speech will give Obama an opportunity to bypass often critical Israeli media and hostile political figures during his first trip to Israel as president.
The U.S. Embassy in Israel is running an essay contest on Facebook, with up to 20 winners “who submit the most original and creative responses” to be invited to the speech, the embassy website said.
I wrote earlier this month how the visit — coming after Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election victories — give the leaders a chance to reset their strained relationship. Netanyahu was seen as a Mitt Romney supporter while Obama had to continuously prove his pro-Israel credentials during his campaign.
Obama’s swing includes Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Obama has met with U.S. Arab-American and Jewish leaders in separate sessions in recent weeks to discuss his trip.
Obama “wants to recognize Israeli technology and the spirit of the Jewish people, so Israelis can hear for themselves Obama’s regard for Israeli society,” I was told by someone with knowledge of the March 7 meeting Obama had with U.S. Jewish leaders.
Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassdor to the U.S., briefed a group of Jewish members of Congress on Tuesday about the Obama visit, including Illinois Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Brad Schneider.
Obama “certainly wants the Israelis to understand his sincerity,” Schakowsky told me. “I hope that the Israeli people will show more regard for him, regard that is well deserved,” she said.
Obama toured Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial when he visited Israel during his 2008 presidential campaign and will make a return trip. In addition, Oren said Obama will visit the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Schneider said the Shrine of the Book stop is significant because it shows “that the Jewish connection to the land of Israel at least dates back thousands of years. I think that is an important symbolism.”
To that point, Obama will also visit the Har Herzl national cemetery — where Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, is buried.
Obama will be meeting with Netanyahu and will travel to the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the lawmakers said.
Obama will also visit an Iron Dome installation — the missile defense system built with massive financial assistance from the Obama administration and Congress.
Obama met with two dozen American Jewish leaders at that March 7 White House meeting to discuss his trip.
“He wants to communicate that he recognizes that Israel lives in a tough neighborhood that is getting tougher,” with the challenges posed by Iran, Egypt and Syria, making it imperative that the U.S. stand fast with Israel, I was told.
Negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinian Authority ground to a halt years ago. Obama will urge a “just resolution” of the Palestinian conflict — but the prospects for peace, he told the group, are “bleak.” Obama is not coming with a proposal to jump-start the peace process.