Jerusalem readies for Bush's arrival, 10,500 police involved in security
Snipers, bomb-sniffing dogs and Shin Bet bodyguards to secure US president's visit in operation dubbed ' Clear Skies'; eight truckloads of gear arrive at historic King David hotel, bearing everything from security equipment to printer paper and fax machines; garbage teams engaged in furious race to clean capital up
With hundreds of hotel rooms booked and municipal crews erasing graffiti, repainting road markings and unfolding red, white and blue flags, Jerusalem is getting ready for its highest-profile visitor in years: US President George W. Bush.
Jerusalemites are accustomed to waiting in traffic jams as convoys of black sedans shuttle visiting dignitaries around the city, the seat of Israel's government. But Bush, who arrives for three days beginning Wednesday, constitutes a VIP of a different order. He is the first American president to come since Bill Clinton a decade ago.
Israel is pulling out all the stops to impress a president who is perhaps its staunchest foreign ally. Jerusalem is spending nearly $400,000 to spruce itself up for the visit, said Jacob Avishar, the city official in charge of coordinating preparations. Garbage teams are engaged in a furious race to clean its often dusty streets and walls tagged with spray paint, he said.
During the visit, the Old City's five-century-old ramparts will be illuminated with floodlights until 2 am. Instead of midnight, Avishar said. That way Bush will have more time to enjoy the view from his window at the nearby King David hotel.
Eight truckloads of gear for the Bush visit have already arrived at the historic hotel, bearing everything from security equipment to printer paper and fax machines, said assistant general manager Benny Olearchik. Bush will be staying in a suite that costs $2,600 a night - for guests who are not president of the United States.
Olearchik would not disclose how much the Americans are paying for the pleasure of staying at his hotel, one of Israel's most expensive.
Bush's entourage has already taken up more than two-thirds of its 237 rooms, and will take over all of them once he arrives himself, Olearchik said. Unlucky guests who happened to plan their visits at the wrong time had their reservations canceled.
The Americans - an entourage 200 strong and 120 members of the press, according to Israeli police - are also renting rooms in other hotels, including all of the nearby 292-room Dan Panorama.
The King David, which opened in the 1930s, is best known for getting blown up by Jewish terrorists in 1946. Members of the hardline Irgun group, opposed to British rule over what was then known as Palestine, disguised their explosives in milk jugs and destroyed a wing housing British offices, killing 91 people.
'It's probably better just to close up'
Something like that would be much harder to pull off this time. More than 10,500 police and security personnel will be deployed to protect Bush and keep order during the visit - more than one-third of Israel's entire police force, according to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
"There will be so much security nobody will be able to get anywhere near the president," Rosenfeld said. Police will "ensure that life can continue as much as possible," he promised. But streets around the hotel will be blocked off, meaning that traffic in parts of the city will be snarled for days, and parking will be forbidden along about a dozen city streets where Bush's convoy is supposed to pass. Offenders' cars will be towed to Jerusalem's soccer stadium.
The security personnel will include snipers, bomb-sniffing dogs and bodyguards from the Shin Bet internal security service, including reservists called up especially for the visit, according to police officials. The operation, dubbed "Clear Skies," will cost Israel $25,000 for every hour Bush is in the country, Israel Radio reported.
Flights in and out of Israel's only international airport, Ben Gurion, will be suspended around the time Bush lands. From the airport, Bush will fly by helicopter to Jerusalem. The police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to divulge details of the preparations.
The choppers will be flown in from the US on Air Force cargo planes, along with armored limousines - complete with District of Columbia license plates - vans filled with high-tech communications gear and other vehicles for a heavily armed counterassault team.
Israeli officialdom is eagerly anticipating the arrival of Bush, who Israel sees as one of the most supportive presidents ever to have served in the White House. "It's not every day that a president comes here," Israel's deputy premier, Haim Ramon, told Army Radio this week.
Not every Israeli will welcome him with open arms. Supporters of convicted Pentagon spy Jonathan Pollard have rented space on the sides of Jerusalem city buses to place posters of Bush flanked by Lebanese Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Gaza Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. The posters compare the imprisoned Pollard to three Israeli soldiers captured by Hizbullah and Hamas and call for the immediate release of all four.
Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst for the US Navy, transferred military secrets to Israel while working at the Pentagon. He was arrested in 1985 and pleaded guilty at his trial. He is serving a life sentence in a US Federal prison.
There is little chance Bush will see them, as local traffic will be diverted away from routes used by his motorcade.
On the other side of the political spectrum, a left-wing Israeli Arab party plans to demonstrate opposite the city's US consulate at the start of Bush's visit to protest his policy toward Iran, Jerusalem police said. Most Jerusalemites, however, appear to be awaiting the visit with a mix of dread and resignation.
Eli Ben-David, 48, who has run an antique shop opposite the King David for 28 years, said three days of Bush mean blocked roads and bad business. No tourists will be staying at the hotel and the street will be largely shut, meaning that nearly no one will be able to reach his store.
"Every time one of these big guys come, we don't sell anything," Ben-David sighed. "It's probably better just to close up shop and wait for it to pass."