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Politics clouding Obama's coming visit to Israel

Wednesday - 3/13/2013, 4:18pm  ET

In this Tuesday , March 12, 2013 photo, a Palestinian woman walks past posters showing US President Barack Obama in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Obama’s trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Israeli officials say will take place March 20-22, is the U.S. leader’s first trip to the region as president, and his first overseas trip since being reelected. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

DANIEL ESTRIN
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- A week before President Barack Obama is set to arrive in the region, Middle East politics are already casting a cloud over the visit as Israeli and Palestinian officials plan a series of events to promote their agendas.

Jerusalem city officials are offering visiting journalists a free tour of Israel's most contentious archaeological excavation, a sprawling dig in the heart of contested east Jerusalem. Israel has also suggested that journalists could avoid going to the West Bank with Obama when he meets with Palestinian leaders.

On the other side of the divide, Palestinian officials hope to introduce the U.S. president to the family of a prisoner held by Israel. Activists say they will also greet Obama with posters and demonstrations meant to draw attention to life under Israeli military occupation.

These events offer a glimpse of the political minefield Obama will have to navigate when he visits Israel and the West Bank next week, the first time he has come to the area as president. Each side will be trying to win his support for some of the most contentious issues between them.

Israel will be looking for assurances that the U.S. is serious about stopping Iran's suspect nuclear program. Obama will also be seeking to repair a strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While he has said he will not present any grand peace plan, Obama will also be under pressure to convince the Palestinians that he is serious about getting peace efforts restarted -- and presumably pressing Israel to make new concessions.

With so much at stake, Israelis and Palestinians are hoping to capitalize on their moment in the spotlight.

In a statement to reporters, Jerusalem municipal officials said they would be "taking advantage" of the visit to put the holy city's best face forward. Crews have been pulling up weeds along the roads Obama's motorcade will take. Decorative lights will be illuminated all night long on the ancient walls of the Old City, opposite Obama's hotel, "to allow the president to view them from his room and for the hundreds of journalists broadcasting throughout the night to the U.S. to see the city's beauty."

City officials are also promising to escort journalists to "important and famous historical sites." Among the spots are the "City of David," a politically sensitive archaeological site in an Arab neighborhood just outside the Old City.

The dig, named for the biblical King David thought to have ruled from the spot 3,000 years ago, was conducted by Israeli government archaeologists. The project has generated controversy because it was funded by a nationalist Jewish group that buys up properties in Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, then moves Jewish settlers into the homes -- which critics say is meant to make it impossible to divide the city in a future peace deal.

Palestinians and some Israeli archaeologists have also criticized the City of David dig for what they say is an excessive focus on Jewish remains, and have called into question some of the dig's claims that attribute ruins to the King David.

East Jerusalem, home to the Old City and its sensitive holy sites, was captured by Israel in 1967 and subsequently annexed in a move that has never been internationally recognized. The Palestinians also claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Resolving the competing claims to the area is the most explosive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Brachie Sprung, an adviser to the mayor, said the City of David is one of Jerusalem's most popular attractions. She rejected suggestions that the free tours were politically motivated.

"In 2012 the city of Jerusalem experienced record breaking tourism which boosted economic growth, benefitting all segments of the population," Sprung said in an email.

After spending the first day of his visit next Wednesday with Israeli officials, Obama is scheduled to journey to the West Bank the following day for talks with the Palestinians.

But Israel's Government Press Office says journalists need not make the trip, which involves crossing through a military checkpoint. It said a special media center in Jerusalem will provide a live feed of Obama's meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "in order to obviate the need to travel back-and-forth to the Palestinian Authority areas."

GPO Director Nitzan Chen said the live feed was meant solely for convenience. "We are not encouraging people to go or not" to go to the West Bank, Chen said.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, are intent on showing the president what life is like under Israeli occupation. Abbas leads a self-rule government that enjoys limited autonomy in the West Bank. But Israel wields overall control of the area, which the Palestinians claim as the heartland of their future state.

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