Built around a 19th-century Ottoman pasha’s mansion, the American Colony is the more intimate of the two properties (86 rooms versus 237). Its lobby, with stone archways and vaulted ceilings, is furnished with damascene inlaid tables and turquoise tiles. Oriental carpets cover polished stone floors. The interior courtyard is a tranquil oasis, with no hint of the turbulent times when shells and sniper fire rained down on it during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The hotel was caught in the crossfire again during the 1967 Six-Day War.
In the courtyard, I spotted Mordechai Vanunu, Israel’s Benedict Arnold, who spends most afternoons here in the cool shade of an orange tree. In 1986, Vanunu revealed details of the Jewish state’s top-secret nuclear-weapons facility; he served 18 years in prison for treason and is now legally barred from leaving the country. “I feel comfortable and safe here,” he said, sipping Turkish coffee next to a burbling fountain.
The American Colony is popular with Christian pilgrims and secular Israelis, who crowd the Saturday buffet lunch. But the patronage of figures like Vanunu and Palestinian representatives of varying stripes causes some Israelis to regard the hotel with apprehension. “I always wanted to stay there, but I was too afraid,” Israeli author Alon Hilu told me. The hotel got its name from a group of strictly religious Christians who emigrated from Chicago in 1881 and purchased the pasha’s mansion, transforming it into a commune devoted to charitable work. They began taking paying guests in the early 1900’s. The hotel expanded and grew posh after the community disbanded in the 1940’s; today, it belongs to 35 descendants of the founders. A matriarch named Valentine Vester oversaw several renovations, and in 2007 the American Colony joined the King David as a member of the Leading Hotels of the World.
A few days after I arrived at the hotel I talked with Valentine’s son Paul Vester, a primary shareholder, who stressed that the hotel is politically neutral. “We’re not Palestinian and we’re not Israeli,” he said. “We see the hotel as an important meeting place for both sides.”
Vester’s position is more than just talk. Palestinian and Israeli officials met covertly in Room 16 to draft the 1993 Oslo Accords. Today, former British prime minister Tony Blair maintains offices at the hotel for his role as Mideast envoy of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. UN and aid agency workers are often on the guest registry, as are American military officers. Such a contingent—speculation runs rampant as to which guests are actually spies—requires discretion. “We don’t always ask what’s going on,” said general manager Paolo Fetz.
Observing it all are the journalists who have been haunting the American Colony since Lowell Thomas arrived around 1918 to meet T. E. Lawrence, whom he helped make famous as Lawrence of Arabia. Correspondents from CNN, Al Jazeera, and the BBC regularly stay at the hotel, which Jeffrey Goldberg—who has covered the Mideast for The New Yorker and the Atlantic—called “perfectly calibrated to appeal to the fantasy life of a Western reporter in search of Eastern exoticism” with a “whiff of danger in the air.”
Some Israelis worry that coverage of the Mideast conflict is distorted by having such a large media contingent at the hotel, because its Arab staff arranges for Palestinian translators and “fixers” who assist journalists and may influence their perspective. “There is a competition for the narrative here,” said Uri Dromi, who was once Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s spokesman and now directs the Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center in West Jerusalem; to challenge the American Colony’s status as a journalistic hub, he is working to open an International Press Club next year.
The King David and the American Colony also face stiff competition from deluxe establishments being built or planned in Jerusalem, including the Mamilla Hotel, the Palace Hotel, and the Four Seasons. But if this renowned pair maintains preeminence with the powers that be, the question of whether beauty will trump suffering in Jerusalem could ultimately be decided within their history-steeped walls.