Putting on the 'Ritz' for Bush

Robots in the sewer, snipers on the roof, for the visiting president.

US flag 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
US flag 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
It's an ordinary weekday at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Guests sit in the luxurious entrance hall sipping coffee and tea, while staff rush about taking care of their clientele's every request. On closer inspection, however, something is definitely afoot here. In the corner of the lobby, several official-looking people are speaking in hushed tones with senior hotel personnel. Their presence, combined with that of what appear to be security staff milling about, is the main indication that this historic venue is about to be thrust into the international spotlight again when US President George W. Bush makes his first official visit to Israel. "Next week, this place is not going to be a normal hotel anymore," says Sheldon Ritz, the hotel's director of delegations, after wrapping up his daily briefing with Bush's people, many of whom arrived earlier this week to prepare for next Wednesday's visit. Ritz, an immigrant from South Africa, will be the first person to greet the US president when he arrives in the hotel, and is responsible for coordinating this VIP's needs. "Except for visits to Yad Vashem and to Jericho, most of the meetings will be taking place here," Ritz says, adding that the president is set to stay in the coveted $2,600-a-night Royal Suite - although he will receive a discount reserved for visiting dignitaries. "If there is a summit [with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], it will probably take place here, too." "This is definitely one of the biggest operations in the King David's history, certainly on par with [former prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin's funeral and the opening of the new Yad Vashem museum, when heads of state from numerous countries stayed with us," continues Ritz, who has been responsible for coordinating such delegations since 2005. "[Then-US president Bill] Clinton was here in 1998, but I've heard that preparations for that visit were not on this level." Bush will be in Israel for less than three days. All of the King David's 237 rooms, as well as its public areas, have been booked, Ritz says. And White House staff and media from across the globe have booked out all of the rooms in the King David's sister hotel around the corner, the Dan Panorama - for a grand total of 800 rooms. "Earlier this week, a cargo plane arrived in Israel packed with equipment such as computers and paperwork," adds Ritz. "It took eight trucks to transport it all here." White House support staff, US civil servants, State Department officials, Secret Service agents, technicians and even some marines have already arrived at the hotel to prepare for the visit and to secure the surrounding area. "They even sent robots into the sewers to make sure there are no surprises down there," Ritz says, adding that during the presidential visit next Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, snipers will be placed on nearby rooftops, a balloon with camera and night-vision equipment will be on the lookout for terrorists, and both ends of King David Street will be blocked off. "There will be complete gridlock on the roads of Jerusalem," he predicts. However, the traffic lockdown will not be an issue for the King David staff, because they will all be required to remain inside the hotel for the duration of the visit. "It seems like a glamorous job," says Ritz. "But it is certainly intense. I haven't had a day off in three weeks, and it's not like I work regular nine-hour days, either!" The preparations have been going fairly smoothly. Ritz says that the main hitch was in notifying reserved guests that their reservations would be canceled for the duration of the US president's visit and, for some, even earlier. "We've already had to turn out 90 pre-booked guests to accommodate the [president's] staff that arrived here in advance," he says. "Most people have understood about not being able to stay here the actual week the president is here, but they don't understand why we need these rooms two weeks in advance, too."