President Obama arrives in Israel
President Obama arrives in IsraelReuters

The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee has joined President Barack Obama on his first official trip to Israel.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) will represent Congress on the president's first trip of his second term, flying with the president on Air Force One and participating in meetings with Israeli officials, The Hill reported.

The senator is also expected to attend the president's speech to university students in Jerusalem on Thursday, as well as the state dinner hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres. 

“Israel is one of our closest allies in the world and President Obama’s visit is a powerful reminder of the unbreakable bonds between our two nations,” Engel said. “Israel continues to thrive as a nation, even as it is forced to confront a wide array of threats to its security, including Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the terrorist group Hizbullah, and the civil war in neighboring Syria. 

“There is no more powerful message to send across the world, to friends and foes alike, than a U.S. President standing shoulder to shoulder with the Israeli people. I’m honored to bring the voices of the New Yorkers I represent and the U.S. Congress to Israel on this historic trip.”

Engel introduced legislation last month, together with panel chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), to tighten sanctions on Iran and this week is sponsoring legislation calling on the president to arm vetted rebels in Syria, according to The Hill.

Engel met with Vice President Joe Biden and White House staff last week to discuss the president’s trip to the region. 

While President Obama has finally decided to visit the Jewish state, he has decided not to speak at the Israeli Knesset, as is customary of the American president, but will instead at the Binyanei Hauma convention center in Jerusalem.

The decision is seen by many as a blatant affront to the Jewish state.

Former Knesset Speaker MK Reuven Rivlin expressed concern over the decision on Tuesday saying, “When President Obama avoids the Knesset in Jerusalem, that’s a worrying sign, it’s a statement of lack of faith in the representatives of the nation he’s addressing.”

A group of Republican senators also wrote a letter to the president to "commend" him for traveling to Israel but questioned his choice not to address the Knesset, which they describe as "a customary and symbolic gesture that celebrates our shared democratic ideals and the special relationship between Israel and United States."

The letter notes that both of Obama's most recent predecessors, President Clinton and President George W. Bush, addressed the Israeli legislative body.

The White House downplayed the decision when asked about it last week.

Spokesman Ben Rhodes said the administration and the Israeli government had "discussed a range of options" for where Obama could speak while visiting the country and settled on a convention center, partly as a way to reach young people.

"We obviously have a deep respect for the Knesset as the seat of Israeli democracy," Rhodes said. “In this instance, we felt like bringing together an audience of university students from a broad range of partners that our embassy has in Israel would allow him to speak ... to the Israeli public and Israeli young people."

While Rhodes claims that the decision is aimed at “bringing together an audience of university student,” the president also decided to exclude students from Ariel University, located in Shomron, from the list of invitees to the presidential speech in Jerusalem's convention center, even as all of Israel's other universities were included.