JERUSALEM (JTA) – Turning out the lights before you leave Jerusalem may be an odd way to say you care, but it’s what President Bush wants.
Jerusalem’s municipality is shutting down the Old City’s familiar strobes on Thursday at dawn to give the president an unfettered look at the sun rising over its walls, spires and cupolas. The request came from the White House, Jerusalem officials said.
Bush landed at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv shortly before noon Wednesday, kicking off his first visit as president to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The visit is the first leg of an eight-day tour to the Middle East that includes stops in the Persian Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
“The United States and Israel are strong allies,” Bush said after a red carpet reception at the airport by Israeli political and religious leaders, and by an honor guard.
“The source of that strength is a shared belief in the power of human freedom. Our people built two great democracies under difficult circumstances.”
“The alliance between our two nations helps guarantee Israel’s security as a Jewish state,” he added.
Bush is meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the King David Hotel on Wednesday night, and again after he visits Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Bush’s first stop was the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres, where he was serenaded by a group of Jerusalem schoolchildren singing a medley of Israeli songs and “Over the Rainbow” in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
The U.S. leader initially tried to contain his laughter before giving up and embracing the children afterward. The children were chosen from a pool of English speakers so Bush could converse with them.
In short remarks delivered while seated alongside Peres, Bush emphasized the overall tenor of the visit, confronting those who would obstruct peace.
“It’s vital for the world to fight terrorists,” he said. “I come as an optimistic person and a realistic person – realistic in my understanding that it’s vital for the world to fight terrorists to confront those who would murder the innocent to achieve political objectives.”
On Tuesday, a day before Bush’s arrival in Israel, Jerusalem officials outlined a huge military-style operation dubbed “Clear Sky.”
For years Bush has described the transformative experience of seeing the sun rise over the Old City during his first visit in 1998, when he was Texas governor.
“You know, my first trip to Israel, and only trip to Israel, was in 1998,” Bush told Israel’s Channel 2 TV before leaving for Israel. “And I remember being in a hotel room and opened the curtain over the Old City, and the sun was just coming up, and it just glowed. It was golden. And I told Laura, ‘I can’t believe what I’m looking at.’ And after she got her contacts on, she came and looked.”
That would have been the view east from the King David Hotel, where Bush stayed then and where he is staying this trip.
The sunrise view will come just before Bush sets out to Ramallah, where he will spend the day meeting with Abbas.
Bush is scheduled to leave Jerusalem Friday morning after visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. He is scheduled to tour Christian sites in the Galilee before continuing to Kuwait.
His planned sunrise vantage was one of many revealed by Israeli officials. A comprehensive PowerPoint presentation mapped every detail of his convoy’s travel routes. The curious can track the president in real time on the Jerusalem municipality Web site, www.jerusalem.muni.il.
Such details stunned White House officials, who are used to keeping the president’s movements under wraps. Israeli officials said that because the visit is shutting down Jerusalem for three days, Jerusalemites deserve to know where and when they can travel.
Many of the city’s residents had fled by Tuesday morning, preferring to leave the city to the Bush onslaught. On Tuesday, rain lashed Jerusalem’s emptying streets, but by Wednesday morning the sun was out.
Some of the details of “Clear Sky,” outlined by spokesman Gil Sheffer, unwittingly underscored the difficulties of the city Bush is visiting.
Jerusalem’s fervently Orthodox and Arab populations comprise the bulk of its population but do not provide much of a tax base. For years the government has been the major employer here; much of the infrastructure has been deteriorating.
Sanitation workers are working overtime to “scrub corners clean,” Sheffer said, and electrical workers were making last-minute repairs to the city’s lighting system. Road repairs were carried out along the presidential route, where 1,500 Israeli and American flags are flying. Parking downtown is banned.
Schoolchildren are getting half days for the duration of the presidential visit to the area.
The Jerusalem municipality is touting the visit with a graphic depicting Bush and two helicopters – one nosing downward.
Authorities have dedicated a police presence of more than 10,000 to secure the city for three days. That doesn’t count the security detail the president brought with him, particularly after al-Qaida figures called on local Palestinians to kill him.
Israel will hand over security to the Palestinian Authority for Bush’s visit to Ramallah in the West Bank on Thursday, an American-urged nod to Palestinian sovereignty. Nonetheless, Israel shut down the West Bank as of Tuesday midnight, a closure that applies to internal movement as well as to entering Jerusalem and Israeli areas.
Palestinians are eager to prove the viability of their own security forces after the humiliation troops loyal to Abbas suffered this summer when the Hamas terrorist group ousted them from the Gaza Strip.
One sign of the P.A.’s caution: It has asked journalists to show up at 4 a.m. to cover the 10 a.m. meeting at the P.A. headuarters.