President Donald Trump is to land at Tel Aviv airport on Monday and spend two days in Jerusalem with a side visit to Bethlehem in the West Bank. The Israelis and the Palestinians are scrambling to roll out the red carpet – but, seriously, it will be hard to beat the Saudi royals, who staged a sword dance for/with Trump and hosted the first family in a real palace.
In Jerusalem, Trump will dine at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street, which is . . . not a palace. His wife, Sara Netanyahu, famously described their home as a dump, with stained drapes and a sad kitchen, on a campaign video. But she favors “pink champagne.” So we shall see.
Trump and his immediate entourage will stay at the granddad of Jerusalem hotels, the King David, a five-star 1931 (once blown up) edifice built by an Egyptian Jewish banker during the British mandate and now owned by Mickey Federmann, chairman of the board at Elbit Systems, Israel’s top defense contractor.
We’ve spent many hours in the King David’s grand lobby, chatting up local notables and stalking diplomats. The King David is . . .. very nice. It has a great swimming pool! The bar is old-timey, but the scene is usually meh, a bit dull, though you can’t beat it for history.
The manager of VIP services is the well-named Sheldon Ritz, who is a peach. He took us on a quickie pre-Trump tour. Ritz looked fabulous, by the way, in a crisp suit but confessed he hadn’t really slept in days. Each visit by global pashas takes its toll, but the hotel seemed on high alert to host a fellow hotel-owner-in-chief.
The King David has provided luxe accommodations to almost all visiting heads of state to Jerusalem. On the lobby floor, there are tiles with the signatures of past guests, some in amusing juxtapositions, Neil Young next to Al Gore next to David Ben-Gurion next to Metallica. There’s Anwar Sadat, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama – and Pamela Anderson.
On Thursday afternoon, we saw Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, rush out the doors and hail a taxi, while Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, darted down a hallway.
Ritz took us up for a look at Room 634, the Royal Suite, one of three in which the Trumps may stay. The other is the Presidential Suite, which boasts a Jacuzzi that holds four. Think of the possibilities for peace.
Asked what they’ve done to prepare the suite, Ritz joked, “We’ve imported a ton of gold.”
The suite was ample: one big bed, walk-in closet, dining room, parlor, desk. The towels are embossed with the word “Dan” for the hotel chain. A few bits and bobs were down-market: the supermarket teas, a plastic steam kettle, some random coffee table books.
If you want to spend the night, it’s yours for $5,500.
“It’s very nice, though it’s not what he has at home at Trump Towers,” Ritz said, pausing dramatically at the bank of bulletproof windows. “But he doesn’t have this.”
The view. There’s the tennis court and swimming pool below and then the walls of the Old City, where the golden Dome of the Rock was shimmering in the sunlight.
The view tells a story. There’s al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest in Islam, a steeple of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks for many believers the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and a bit of the Western Wall, the edge of the raised esplanade that marks what Jews call the Temple Mount, their most sacred site.
There’s also the Palestinian village of Silwan in East Jerusalem, the concrete separation barrier and, off in the distance, Jordan.
Trump is scheduled to visit the wall and the church.
Ritz said the King David suites on Trump’s floor are some of the most secure spots in Israel.
The air and ventilation systems are contained. “If, God forbid, there’s a bomb, the suites will be intact,” Ritz said. They are built as kind of a reinforced cage.
“When the president is here,” Ritz said, “it becomes Fort Knox meets the White House.”
After the press got a look at the suites, the Israelis, then the Secret Service will have a go at the rooms, which will be scanned, sniffed and probed. Robots will troll the sewers below. Surveillance balloons with infrared sensors will bob overhead.
The Israeli security services are calling their two-day mission to protect the U.S. president and his entourage “Operation Blue Shield.”
At a police command center, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 10,000 police officers – fully one-third of the force – will be on duty. Trump will land at Ben Gurion International Airport on Monday afternoon, be flown by helicopter to Jerusalem, then visit President Reuven Rivlin and Netanyahu, among others.
When Trump ventures into the Old City, which is considered “occupied territory” by much of the world and the Palestinians, Rosenfeld said the security forces will “shut down” and “sterilize” the area, meaning that residents will be kept indoors for a few hours and that the usual throngs visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall will be kept back.
“There won’t be any direct contact with citizens,” Rosenfeld said, though there will be guests and dignitaries.
The police spokesman said intelligence officers have not heard of any planned demonstrations along Trump’s route.
About that bomb. There’s a plaque in front of the King David that recalls in Hebrew and English a historical event. On July 22, 1946, the south wing of the hotel was bombed by the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun, led by a young Menachem Begin, who later became prime minister – 91 people died, many of them British troops, bureaucrats and local staff.
On a happier note, one of the King David chefs, Osama Groz, said the staff these days composed of Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Asked whether he can make meatloaf, Groz said, “Of course. We can make anything the president and his guests would like.”
Asked whether he had high hopes for the Trump visit, the chef said, “Sure, why not? But in this country, peace hasn’t been so easy.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · William Booth