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Jerusalem Journal: A Presidential Visit

Posted: January 7, 2008

It's been a long time since an American president visited Jerusalem.

Once American presidents used to pay periodic visits, and we coped with it. Richard Nixon came in 1974. Jimmy Carter visited in 1979. Bill Clinton came four times. But it's been over a decade since the last U.S. presidential visit to Israel. And it appears that Israelis may not remember how to handle it as we used to.

The three-day visit to Jerusalem by President George W. Bush is pretty much expected to paralyze the city. More than 7,000 law enforcement officers have been diverted from their normal duties to secure his visit. Virtually all of downtown is being cleared with residents told their vehicles will be towed away if they don't move them out on their own. Blimps with cameras will be in the sky. The street outside the ADL's Jerusalem Office will be closed as it is the route the president will take to Israeli President Shimon Peres' residence. Police snipers on rooftops and other precautionary steps are being taken to make sure no harm comes to the president. Advance White House teams have already taken over the legendary King David Hotel and the nearby Dan Panorama, and hotel guests have been gently shown the door.

The difference between this presidential visit and all previous ones is that Nixon, Carter and Clinton all came on the heels of a major diplomatic breakthrough. A tour of Jerusalem was a sort of a victory lap by them. Nixon brokered the ceasefire arrangement between Israel and the Syrians in 1974. Carter, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and Clinton, the Oslo Accords.

In contrast, President Bush is seeking some success in the Middle East for his eight years at the helm, and if it can't be found in Iraq, then he is seeking it in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.  Some Israelis are concerned that the U.S. president may try to put pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his fragile government and impose a deal with the Palestinians. In an interview with Israel's Channel 2, President Bush said flat-out he believed this was the time for striking a deal for both sides, and he's there to help. "Not that I am a great heroic figure," President Bush said. "But they know me and they are comfortable with me, and I am a known quantity. Therefore the question is, will they decide to get the deal done while I am president as opposed to maybe the next person who won't agree to a two-state (solution) or maybe the next person will take a while to get moving." 

President Bush will hold intensive meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah, and with former British Prime Minister and current Quartet representative, Tony Blair.  President Bush has decided not to keep with the custom of meeting with head of the opposition in Israel, namely Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, but he will be finding time to meet with the two sons of former premier Ariel Sharon, who is still in a coma.

Most Israelis seem unfazed by the prospects of the presidential visit. Besides the traffic madness it is expected to cause, President Bush's visit is a short respite from the anticipated turbulence of the Winograd Report on the conduct of the government during the Second Lebanon War. This is expected to finally be released in about three weeks and is reportedly unsparingly critical of the performance of Prime Minister Olmert's government. It may not fault Olmert personally, but the public outcry could trigger enormous pressure for Olmert to resign, much like the wake of the inquiries following the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Golda Meir quit and a decade later when Ariel Sharon was forced to quit as defense minister during the first Lebanon War.  In the meantime, Olmert is wholeheartedly embracing the first visit to the Holy Land by a U.S. president in 10 years. President Bush is keenly aware of the looming American elections and knows that a display of friendship for Israel can't hurt -- and most probably greatly helps -- Republican aspirations.

Most Israelis agree that his visit will probably not likely make much of a difference for peace prospects, but it will likely be remembered as a time of warmth from Washington. On considering the next U.S. presidential administration, no matter who wins, most Israelis predict no crises, but are preparing for a definite change in tone. That's when Israelis will remember George W. Bush the most.

* By Arieh O'Sullivan, ADL's Director of Communications in Jerusalem.

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