JERUSALEM — White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's visit to Israel with his family was meant to smooth over tensions between the two countries, but right-wing Jewish activists cursing him as a "hater of Israel" did their best Thursday to disrupt the visit.
The activists have pursued the Emanuel family across the country, attempting to deter them from celebrating the bar mitzvah, or Jewish coming of age, of Emanuel's eldest son Zach Emanuel.
Israeli commentators have described a "significant warming" of relations between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who'll visit the White House next week after Emanuel hand-delivered an invitation. The protesters, however, are trying to hound him out of the country.
"I think it is disgraceful that Mr. Rahm Emanuel should be allowed to go the Western Wall when he is clearly a hater of Israel who would give all this away to the Palestinians," right-wing activist Itamar Ben Gvir told McClatchy. "We will continue to make it clear that we do not want them here."
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The Western Wall, which dates to the construction of the Second Temple by Herod the Great in 19 B.C., is the holiest site in Judaism.
Ben Gvir arrived in Jerusalem's Old City hours ahead of the Emanuel's expected visit to the area and was repeatedly pushed back by Israeli police. Still, he managed to reach the family as they toured the restored Hurva synagogue, and began shouting "anti-Semite" and "hater of Israel" at the group. Other activists, including settler leader Baruch Marzel, attempted to reach the Emanuels as well, but police kept them from the site.
Israeli police quickly surrounded Ben Gvir and removed him from the site, as the Emanuel family continued their tour. As he was being led off, Ben Gvir continued to shout, "Jerusalem is not for sale."
Tensions between the U.S. and Israel heated up after Israel announced during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden that it would build 1,600 housing units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo. The announcement threatened to scuttle peace talks that Biden had come to launch.
Ben Gvir, who often rallies of hundreds of right-wing activists, said he'd continue to try to "embarrass and weaken" the Obama administration, especially over the issue of Jerusalem.
Earlier this week, Ben Gvir filed a complaint with the Jerusalem District Court, challenging the Emanuel family's to hold a bar mitzvah at the Davidson center, an archeological park adjacent to the Western Wall. The municipality of Jerusalem under Mayor Nir Barkat has several days to submit a response to the court, and prove that the center is licensed to hold such events.
Editorials in the major Hebrew-language dailies, Maariv and Yediot Ahrnot, have declared that the current visit has smoothed over tensions between the two governments. Netanyahu's office said he would meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, with a focus on the opening round of indirect negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Obama has made an effort to reach out to Jewish leaders in the U.S. recently, inviting dozens of Jewish members of Congress to discuss Mideast policy, and hosting the first-ever White House event to mark Jewish Heritage month.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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