When Obama visits the next-door neighbor

Reporter's Notebook: Living on the same street in Jerusalem as Netanyahu often means having democratic rights trampled on, but latest decrees ahead of Obama visit cross all bounds.

US flags prepared ahead of Obama visit 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US flags prepared ahead of Obama visit 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If my plumbing or electricity goes on the blink, I can’t call a repairman during US President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Jerusalem next week.
That’s because I live on the same street as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s official state residence, and security for Obama is much more stringent than for any of his predecessors.
The polite young man from Netanyahu’s security detail who knocked on my door this week during a routine check of residents told me that during the visit, I could not have any visitors, including tradespeople.
Worse still, I was told that any of my apartment’s side windows that look out onto the length of the street must be shuttered.
“I can’t do that,” I explained to the man standing in my doorway. “I suffer from claustrophobia, and I must have light and open space.”
“So draw the curtains,” he said by way of compromise.
“I don’t have any curtains, for the same reason.”
He shook his head, a perplexed frown crossing his forehead.
“I’ll have to talk to them about it,” he said, without specifying who “them” were.
Frankly I wondered if this order to close the shutters was legal in a country that claims to be democratic. Surely my neighbors and I can do as we like in our own homes.
In fact, aside from trampling on our democratic rights, the order didn’t make sense.
The security people long ago created something that looks like Fort Knox at Netanyahu’s end of the street. In addition, whenever the prime minister has special guests, a tent goes up outside the entrance to the house on Smolenskin Street, and sometimes another goes up on Balfour Road, so that guests are completely secluded from passers-by.
Given the stringency of security for the Obama visit, the tents are bound to be in place. So why is there a need to close the shutters? There’s no way that even the best of snipers could see a target if a car carrying a VIP were to drive into the tent.
The security people know this, but perhaps they are operating on a better-safe-than-sorry policy.
The young man tried to be helpful, assuring me that residents in the area who carried a proper ID card with the slip of paper testifying to their address would be permitted to pass.
“No, they won’t. I’ve had experience with this before,” I told him. “Our lives are made miserable, and unless we start to scream and shout and one of the security people finally decides to escort us across the road, we can’t pass.”
He had no control over that, he said, but gave me the number of his cellphone in case I ran into trouble.
Every now and again, the prime minister’s neighbors are visited by someone from his security detail, informing them that a security exercise will be taking place later in the week, or checking that the people listed as living at certain addresses are still there. Sometimes they double-check the ID and telephone number to be absolutely sure that the person who responds to the knock is really who he or she purports to be.
For some reason, the detailed list does not include mug shots alongside the names, something that would make the security personnel’s job much easier.
“Some people object,” explained the young man.
“But you don’t need to ask,” I told him. “The Interior Ministry has copies of the mug shots of everyone who has an ID card or an Israeli passport.”
“We couldn’t do that,” he replied.
I didn’t pursue the point, though it’s worth noting that members of the security detail traipse through the gardens of all the buildings on the street at least once a day without asking permission, and sometimes check the cars and the motorcycles parked outside, even when they know they belong to residents.
They also patrol inside the grounds of the Terra Sancta College on the corner of Keren Hayesod Street, and conscientiously check garbage bins inside and outside all the buildings in the immediate area.
Fair enough; the prime minister’s safety is an important factor. But what happens when security interferes with democracy?
The people living on the same street as the prime minister and the streets that run between the King David Hotel and the Prime Minister’s Residence are already used to the area being cordoned off sometimes to vehicular traffic – and even pedestrians, on certain streets – but the latest decree crosses all bounds.