Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Snow Job In Jerusalem?

It snows in Jerusalem and the world stops. Or almost.
Schools and most places of business close.
Drivers are warned to stay in the house.
The television is filled with clips of Mayor Luplianski sitting on a snowplow
ready for the white powder to attempt to disable his city.

Weather reports began the hype two days earlier. To many snow in Jerusalem is more exciting than the visit of U.S. President Bush.

When it snows in Jerusalem some Tel Aviv residents pile their kids in the cars and drive up the hill about thirty miles to let them toss snowballs at each other. Years later these children will remember driving up from the Mediterranean and the snowfall in Jerusalem and the ‘dangerous’ drive up the mountain to reach the 800 meter high city.

The snow however, was slow in coming. TV ratings may have soared as concerned parents tuned in to see if their children would be in school the next day, and employees to find out if they were going to work, but in the end it was all ratings oriented hype.
As Mark Twain has often been quoted as saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Truth is the first day the snow was really slush, no more serious than a wimpy spring storm in Minneapolis. Besides the splashing of water beneath the tires, driving wasn’t impaired. Those who were raised in harsh winter climates shook their heads at the fuss. One was warned that if the temperature dropped further, ice would make driving difficult to impossible. Fortunately, snow and ice in Jerusalem rarely lasted more than a few hours, maybe a day. One extremely rare occasion, two days, but according to the weather reports that two-day period only came around once every seven years.

As luck would have it, those poor souls who were forced to the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem during this cold snap were in for a tortuous experience. For understandable and justifiable security reasons the U.S. Consulate is essentially a fortress. Armed guards patrol the perimeter around Salahadin Street. The high walls are topped with barbed wire. Guards sit in bulletproof huts behind cement anti-car bomb barriers, suspiciously watching anyone who approaches.

The newest security precaution is appointments. In order to come to the Embassy in Tel Aviv or Consulate in Jerusalem for a visa, a social security question, or a passport issue, one must sign up on-line, make an appointment weeks in advance, then present oneself promptly at the Consulate at the designated hour.

Two days ago, as the temperatures plunged to allow snow to form from the rain and make the weathermen seem more like professionals, those arriving at the U.S. Consulate were in for a bitter surprise. First they had to sign in with a guard inside a bullet-proof cage, who checked to make certain the name was listed. Then the visitor was given a number, and shown to a bullet-proof glass door, which needed to be locked and unlocked after each visitor entered, then through a metal detector, afterwards depositing anything potentially dangerous, including a mobile phone; finally one was allowed into an open courtyard covered by thin sheets of opaque plastic, held up by light aluminum. On a nice spring day the courtyard was undoubtedly pleasant; but with the temperatures in the high thirties or low forties (about 7 degrees C) the courtyard was like a refrigerator.

On the day of our visit the courtyard held about thirty people, some ultra-Orthodox Jews, some Arabs, some secular Israelis. One was a journalist seeking a visa to the US to cover the primary elections, the famed Super-Tuesday.

All were sitting down waiting for their number to be called. One couple, a Hassid and his New York born wife, had a six-month old baby girl in a pink snowsuit with them. Another ultra-Orthodox family had a cute little two-year old girl in a skirt and long stockings. It was ten thirty when we sat down beside an American woman from Florida who had come to apply for a new passport since hers was lost and she was scheduled to leave the country in two weeks.

One of the things about waiting for extended periods of time is that boredom sets in. People begin to talk to each other. This woman was a Christian Missionary who was doing Good Works in the Palestinian Refugee Camps, passing out milk, raising money for hospital beds, teaching the Lord’s word of Peace. In our opinion her message was certainly needed. Any help that could be given to the poor was good work, and any influence to allow people to be exposed to the message of Peace was a good influence.

The other thing that happens with waiting is the cold. As the numbers slowly were called, the frigid air bit deeper into the clothing reaching all the way to the skin, eventually to the bone.

One of the women waiting with her elderly father, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man with a long beard, wearing the traditional ‘beged Yerusalmi’ the long black satin coat and black hat, said she’d been there in the summer and the sun beat down as mercilessly as the cold ate through clothing. Now the cold was chilling her father in his thin coat.

So why, one asks, are people, visitors to the USA and citizens, required to wait out in the cold, or the boiling heat, for their number to be called? The courtyard had a wall around it, supporting the aluminum and the plastic ceiling but a few feet of space existed between the top of the wall and the roof, space open to the elements. One wonders why couldn’t the US Government have built a proper waiting room; put in heat? (Fans in the summer?)

When the question was asked of the guards, they said, “Ask the Consul once you’re inside.” As if a visitor every saw the Consul, unless the visitor was a VIP. When the guards were asked to call a representative of the agency to explain why visitors and US citizens were forced to sit out in the cold, the guard said, “People ask that every day. No one ever comes.” At least let the baby inside, the guard was told. That, eventually happened.

An hour and a half after the scheduled appointment, by which time noses were running, and coughs developing, our number was finally called. Inside we found a different world. The space was small, but warm.

The clerks behind the bullet-proof glass in the room were quite pleasant, helpful, and efficient. But getting to that point was like the search for Shangra-La. One assumes that budget and a massive bureaucracy would have to be overcome before the conditions were made more amenable to the common man (one can’t imagine the nephew of U.S. Sec Rice, VP Cheeney, or Pres. Bush’s nephew, or a Congressman’s favorite donor, waiting out in the cold. But that’s another matter.)

One of the clerks behind the window clucked when told how long the wait had been, and said the suggestion had been made to put a message on the website to prepare for an outdoor wait, but the suggestion was vetoed by those managing the Consulate. Too bad. Watching the Vikings play San Fransciso in an outdoor Minnesota game would have warranted thermal underwear, hats, gloves, down jackets and wool pants. Who ever imagined the same was needed in Jerusalem just to visit the Consulate.

Two days later the snow began. One wonders what those poor souls sitting out in the courtyard did for warmth until their number was called.

Meanwhile Jerusalem’s main roads to Benei HaUmah were clear. Three hundred journalists were expected to descend on the Conference Center to hear the results of the Winnograd Commission read out to the public. By tomorrow the snow may be gone, but the echoes of the Commission’s findings will be bouncing around the media for weeks to come. There’s even talk of another commission to investigate the findings of the Winnograd Commission. The new commission would have teeth, pundits say.

By all accounts, the IDF will be blamed for the loss of life, injury, and disappointment, of the War in Lebanon II, with PM Olmert excused from major blame. The question is, though, will the public sit still for the results, or demand some punishment of the government’s leaders beyond the criticism aimed at the IDF? Most Israelis think PM Olmert will survive the report, crediting him with being one of the most polished and wily politicians ever to sit in the PM’s chair.

Maybe the Winnograd Commission will turn out to be just a snow job, but meanwhile its going to be interesting to watch if PM Olmert manages to keep his footing on the icy paths of Jerusalem once the Winnograd Commission’s findings are made public.