After a rainy, chilly day of protests and rallies in the 24 hours preceding the arrival of President Bush to Israel, today the skies cleared and normal life in Jerusalem ground to a halt.
All the central streets of Jerusalem, adorned with bright new American and Israeli flags flapping in the wind, are closed to traffic including public transport. Jerusalem is a walker’s city, but for the next 48 hours there’s no other way to get around except on foot. Most taxi drivers have taken off to the Dead Sea on an enforced vacation, since barely any roads will be open to drive on.
While G.W makes his way from Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the Marine One helicopter, his entourage of hundreds has taken to the roads, forcing the closure of the main Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem highway.
Most Israeli political commentators are predicting little more than ceremonial results from the first official visit to Israel by G.W. Just hours before Air Force One landed, nine Kassam rockets slammed into southern Israel from Gaza sending a few Sderot residents to the hospital to be treated for shock. Yesterday, two Katyushas landed in the Galillee community of Shlomi�"the first such attack in more than 18 months since the Second Lebanon War.
It’s ironic that G.W. is staying in Jerusalem, hosted by the stately King David Hotel. America’s embassy in Israel is firmly ensconced in Tel Aviv, along with the embassies of every other country in the world�"the United States, Israel’s greatest friend in the world, still doesn’t recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. Presumably, the lame duck president who became a born again Christian in his 40s allowed his personal understanding of the centrality of Jerusalem to override political and strategic considerations.
Snipers dot the roof of the hotel and the surrounding buildings as the massive motorcade, led by seven police motorbikes arrives at the hotel. Jerusalem’s streets are deserted. The fancy art and Judaica stores along King David Street have closed down and are covered with opaque blue sheeting. The entryway to the historic hotel has been transformed into a sterile security tunnel, completely covered so that all those entering and leaving the hotel are unseen.
As the entourage pours out of their vehicles in front of the hotel, the Israeli press complains about their lack of access. The only media personnel allowed access to the King David Hotel are the members of the White House press corps. Everyone else is relegated to coverage from the empty streets.
And what about coverage of the demonstrations and rallies? Despite the obvious presence of US consulate types in plainclothes who must have included a rundown of the protests complete with crowd estimates in their reports to Washington, media coverage was minimal, given the size and intensity of the demonstrations.
Whether it was the renaming of Paris Square to Jonathan Pollard Square; or the symbolic hug around the walls of the Old City by thousands of exuberant students and proponents of a united Jerusalem; or the mud-soaked evening rally at Har Homa by another thousand hardy souls dedicated to Israel’s right to build Jewish neighborhoods inside her capital�"none of these efforts succeeded in getting much air time.
For a moving first-hand report from the Old City rally, see the report of my rabbi Ian Pear at http://joyousjudaism.wordpress.com/
Meantime, G.W will see little more than the sterilized streets of Jerusalem before he heads off to Ramallah tomorrow for a pow-wow with Palestinian leaders. Stay tuned.