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Jerusalemites grumble about Bush visit

Soldiers and dignitaries wait as Bush lands at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv on Jan. 9, 2008.  (Chris Greenberg/ White House)

Soldiers and dignitaries wait as Bush lands at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv on Jan. 9, 2008. (Chris Greenberg/ White House)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Major Middle East news events ordinarily are the salad days of Israeli taxi drivers.

Long starved of tourists in the off-season, the Jewish state’s cabbies look forward to the reliable influx of foreign journalists when something big breaks.

But not this time.

President Bush’s visit, which began Wednesday, brought an extraordinary police clampdown on Jerusalem, where he was to be based for his three-day stay.

Motorists who did not heed a municipal warning to move their cars from several of the capital’s main arteries found them towed away. Some central roads were sealed off entirely by U.S. and Israeli secret agents, while others were shut down within the general proximity of Bush’s cavalcade – an hour before until a half hour after.

Even pedestrians found themselves frequently held up by Israeli police and soldiers posted at key intersections with orders to check the ID cards of passers-by.

“It seems like the majority of faces Bush will see during his trip to Israel will be American faces,” said Channel 2 television reporter Moshe Nussbaum, referring to the hundreds of U.S. Secret Service personnel who fanned out in Jerusalem and brought its hotels to full occupancy.

Perhaps reflecting Israeli skepticism about the substance of Bush’s visit, the talk of the town in Jerusalem around his visit was more about road closures and security precautions than about peacemaking.

Fed up, many taxi drivers shunned the city.

“It’s like another siege,” said cabbie Eliezer Cohen, 69, who was a child when Arab forces blockaded Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem during Israel’s 1948 Independence War.

“All this fuss over a man who hasn’t really delivered that much,” he said.

The Jerusalem Police chief, Aharon Franco, asked city residents to help out “by avoiding the main roads during the critical hours.”

That made for jam-packed peripheral routes, though municipal officials pledged to coordinate movement inside the city.

“I don’t think there is any reason for the public to stay home,” said City Hall official Tal Shumer, adding that an “affirmative action” policy had been instituted for traffic lights, ensuring that vehicles would be directed away from the clogged zones.

Cohen’s skeptical take on Bush’s contribution to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking was shared by many local pundits, who saw a handy metaphor in Jerusalem’s security precautions.

“The State of Israel, with slightly excessive excitement and slightly hysterical blocking of roads, will thank an enthusiastic cheerleader and a devoted fan who mainly excelled in issuing a blank check for Israel’s policies of all varieties, right and left – from building settlements, constructing the separation fence and managing the war in Lebanon to supporting unilateral disengagement and bilateral negotiations over the ‘core issues’, which are now taking shape,” wrote commentator Chemi Shalev in the Israeli daily Hayom newspaper.

The right-wing daily Makor Rishon-Hatzofe ran an editorial slamming Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s willingness to impose a moratorium on West Bank settlement construction.

“You can’t freeze a living place,” the editorial said.

With Iran and Palestinian terrorism topping the agenda of Wednesday’s talks between Olmert and Bush, one seasoned Jerusalemite had a topical bit of advice for the politicians.

“I hear that nowadays they are digging a secret city underground for the nation’s leaders,” David Kuperman wrote in Yediot Achronot. “So I tell myself, why don’t they spend the next three days there, all those esteemed notables, along with President Bush, in the bunker? That way they will be able to check if he is steadfast in the face of the Iranians and liberate him from the problems of traffic jams.”

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