JERUSALEM – With hundreds of hotel rooms booked and municipal crews unfolding red, white and blue flags, Jerusalem is getting ready for its highest-profile visitor in years: President 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.
Israel is pulling out all the stops to impress a man who is perhaps its staunchest foreign ally in his first visit as U.S. president.
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 in furious race to clean the city's often dusty streets and walls tagged with spray paint, he said.
More than 10,500 policemen 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.
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 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 U.S. 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.
Bush will be staying in a suite at the King David hotel that costs $2,600 a night — for guests who are not president of the United States. Assistant General Manager Benny Olearchik would not disclose how much the Americans are paying to stay at his hotel, one of Israel's most expensive.
Bush's entourage already has 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 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.
Israeli officialdom is eagerly anticipating the arrival of Bush, whom Israel sees as one of the most supportive Americans 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 Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Gaza Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. The posters compare the imprisoned Pollard to three Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah and Hamas and call for the immediate release of all four.
Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. 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 U.S. federal prison.
There is little chance Bush will see the posters, 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 U.S. Consulate at the start of Bush's visit to protest his policy toward Iran, Jerusalem police said.
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."