Daily Archives: March 20, 2013

Esther Bintliff

Barack Obama is only the fifth serving US president to visit Israel since the state was founded in 1948. As Marvin Kalb notes: “A presidential visit to Israel is not routine. Quite the contrary.So who are the other four?

President Nixon speaking during the official banquet at the Knesset. Photo: GPO​.

President Nixon speaking during the official banquet at the Knesset. Photo: GPO

1) Richard Nixon made history as the first US president to visit Israel while in office. He and the first lady, Pat Nixon, touched down in Israel for 24 hours in June 1974 as part of a trip that included Austria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan. According to Aaron David Miller, “Nixon’s trip was a largely a farewell tour, a last hurrah following his administration’s deep involvement in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the diplomacy that followed.”

The itinerary Nixon’s daily diary records that after giving a speech at Ben Gurian airport, the President “motored” to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (where the president and his wife were staying in suite 429) accompanied by Ephraim Katzir, Israeli president, and Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister. Later, he went to “the residence of Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel”, along with Henry Kissinger and Rabin. The following day, Nixon and the first lady went to the Yad Vashem memorial, where they took part in a ceremony for Jews killed during the Second World War. Nixon then went to the Knesset and met the Israeli cabinet.

Gifts from Israel to Nixon: A papyrus scroll, a menorah and a book entitled “Justice in Jerusalem”

Hotel: King David Hotel

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Ferdinando Giugliano

Situation vacant? Mario Monti (Getty)

There were two big job vacancies in Rome last month. The Catholic Church began looking for a new pope after the shock resignation of Benedict XVI. Meanwhile, Italians went about the business of picking a new head of government who would end Mario Monti’s technocratic interlude.

The Vatican is not exactly known for its speedy decision-making. Yet it only took the conclave of cardinals a couple of days to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new head of the church. Pope Francis – as he is now – is already making headlines with his new message centred on the need for a humbler and more austere church.

On the other side of the Tiber, Italian politicians are still struggling to choose a new prime minister. Today and tomorrow, President Giorgio Napolitano is meeting party leaders and other institutional figures to talk about what to do next. But Italy-watchers do not expect white smoke to come out of the presidential palace any time soon.

Last month’s inconclusive elections have produced a three-way deadlock in the Senate between Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left coalition, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance, and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. The only solution to the impasse is a government that is backed by at least two of these forces. But this trilemma has no easy solution. Read more

James Blitz

AFP/Getty

As Barack Obama visits Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, he will doubtless find that one issue tops all others for the Israeli government: the need to persuade him to make a firm commitment to take military action over Iran’s nuclear programme if negotiations to scale back Iranian ambitions eventually break down.

President Obama said recently that he does not think Iran will be in position to get a nuclear weapon for at least another year. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, is still looking for a firmer commitment from the White House that if the Iranians take their nuclear capability beyond a certain point, the US will take military action.

Whether differences between the US and Israel will be closed on this trip – or at some other point – is far from clear. Although it says Iran must not get a nuclear weapon, the US administration certainly views the timeframe for the Iranian programme in a more relaxed way than the Israelis do. Read more

More on the island rescue

Elsewhere in the world

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Jeremy Grant

Lee Kuan Yew on March 20 (Chris McGrath/Getty)

Lee Kuan Yew on March 20 (Chris McGrath/Getty)

Sightings of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s former prime minister, are rare these days. He is 89, physically frail and was hospitalised briefly in February.

But on Wednesday he popped up at a conference organised by Standard Chartered bank in the city’s Shangri-la Hotel, taking part in a “fireside chat” with Paul Volcker, the 86-year old former US Federal Reserve chairman.

Most people in the audience, which included the finance minister of the Philippines, were probably just as interested to see how the architect of modern Singapore looked, as in what he might have to say.

The last time I can remember seeing him in any public setting was last August, when he made a surprise appearance at Singapore’s national day celebrations.

The night before, taxi drivers were telling their passengers that the great man had died. His appearance silenced that gossip, but Singaporeans have been more conscious of their former leader’s mortality ever since.

Lee looked thin on Wednesday, but was dressed sharply in a dark blue Chinese silk jacket, with red cuffs. He made his way unaided to the stage and sat down. The only concession to physical decline were the sports shoes on his feet, which presumably help him walk more comfortably.

Much of what the founder of modern Singapore thinks about the big geopolitical issues of the day are well-known.

He doesn’t think that conflict between the US and China is inevitable (China needs the US export market for a good while yet); he doesn’t think that an “Arab Spring” is possible in Asia (there isn’t the vast disparity in wealth and incomes that exist in the Middle East); and Japan risks “dissolving into nothingness” if it continues to refuse taking in migrants to boost its working age population. Read more