L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the Western Wall. Photo courtesy the Mayor's Office
Last week's emotion-packed visit to Sderot by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, along with a delegation of senior city officials, leaders of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Israel Leadership Club and several Los Angeles clergy might have received much of the trip's media coverage during the group's weeklong stay in Israel. However, it's the meetings between city and Israeli experts in homeland security, counterterrorism and green technology that could have a significant effect on the way Los Angeles and Israel protect their citizens, institutions and natural resources.
Security and anti-terrorism personnel held working meetings at Ben-Gurion Airport and at the Israeli National Police Training Center, while energy experts shared expertise at Tel Aviv's partially cleaned-up Yarkon River and during a CleanTech roundtable that showcased the best in Israeli green ingenuity.
At Ashdod Port, the clearinghouse for almost all goods imported to and exported from Israel, officials from the Port of Los Angeles explained to their Israeli counterparts how they have significantly reduced air and water pollution.
Although most members of the Los Angeles team began their trip in stiff business attire, the combination of intense heat and the laid-back Israeli style of conducting business prompted many to doff jackets and remove ties.
At Ben-Gurion Airport, the country's bustling hub of incoming and outgoing civilian traffic, Nahum Liss, director of security planning, control and projects for the Israel Airport Authority, noted how two fatal terror attacks at the airport in 1973 and 1976, respectively, led to today's stringent security measures.
"I was sitting about 30 meters away when a terrorist blew himself up, along with one of the women doing a security check," Liss recalled, his ordinarily booming voice growing quiet.
As tragic as this and other attacks have been, they have added to the learning curve, the airport executive stressed.
"We can tell you how to prevent such cases," Liss told Gina Marie Lindsey, director of the Los Angeles World Airport, LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara and others. "The challenge is finding ways to minimize the hassle to passengers and disruptions to airport operations."
Liss said Ben-Gurion's new arrivals terminal "was planned from day one with security personnel."
While leading a tour of the sparkling facility, a huge open space with soaring glass windows on the entry side, he pointed out the absence of the kind of armed personnel you see in many major American airports. Starting from the sidewalk and ending with the section where security officers hand-searched the luggage of a youth sports team, Liss noted the absence of armed personnel.
"We're fighting for every tourist and don't want to remind them of what they saw on CNN the day before," he said. Nor are there any sniffer dogs, Liss pointed out, "because they remind many Israelis of concentration camps during the Holocaust."
Instead, Liss said, airport security is almost invisible.
"There are layers of security," Liss said, glancing at a clean-cut plainclothes guard with short, cropped hair loitering just outside one of the entrances to the terminal. "There are personnel stationed outside watching the cars and passengers," he said, as well as structural precautions like concrete balustrades preventing cars from getting too close to the terminal and shatterproof glass enmeshed with steel on the windows.
The airport also employs the most advanced technology, from cameras to luggage scanners, and relies heavily on the intuition of security personnel, who believe someone carrying a bomb behaves differently from other passengers. Which is not to say that even the most innocent of passengers is not occasionally subjected to a thorough interrogation.
"We have much to learn from you," Villaraigosa said, clearly impressed, just before signing a memorandum of understanding that will bring Israeli airport experts to Los Angeles for regular inspections, beginning in the near future.
"It's not lost on us that Michael Chertoff," head of U.S. homeland security, "signed an agreement with Israel to share technology and methods to improve homeland security," the mayor said. Lindsey, however, admitted that Los Angeles International is more difficult to secure than Ben-Gurion Airport.
"We have nine terminals, and whereas Ben-Gurion has one central concourse and the baggage area is more centralized, we have several," Lindsey said. "Even so, we hope the Israelis will share their experience on how to better secure the airport's periphery."
A delegation from Los Angeles, led by Mayor Villaraigosa, tours the baggage screening facility at Ben-Gurion Airport
A separate agreement signed last week between the LAPD and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya will provide homeland security training programs to Los Angeles' first-responders and law enforcement, as well as scholarships and internships for homeland security experts and students.
Although security was an integral part of the delegation's visit to Ashdod Port, which, in contrast to Ben-Gurion Airport, is surrounded by high fences and manned by uniformed security personnel, the main thrust of the visit was how to limit pollution and manage a large port.
If Israel has a lot to teach Los Angeles on the security front, said Molly Campbell, deputy executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, Southern California has a great deal to teach Israel when it comes to clean energy.
In May, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles were awarded the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Excellence Award for reducing air emissions from ships, cargo-handling equipment, trains and other polluting vehicles serving the port.
"We're proud of our port's green efforts, which are already serving as a model for others," Campbell said.
During two events along the Yarkon River, the picturesque but semipolluted Tel Aviv waterway, whose contaminants claimed the lives of athletes who fell into the river during a bridge collapse during the 1997 Maccabiah Games, water experts shared know-how about river revitalization and methods to protect scarce water reserves. The Yarkon, whose waters flow through the heart of the humid city on the Mediterranean Sea, has been dredged, and a green park full of picnic tables and bike trails has been established on both banks.
As if to underscore the river's road to revitalization, a group of schoolchildren in a small tourist boat sailed by just as Villaraigosa was signing a memorandum. He met the children's waves with a loud "Shalom."
The visit took a more somber note during a meeting with professor Uri Shani, Israel's energetic water commissioner.
"You have caught us in the middle of a water crisis in Israel, the culmination of several years of drought," Shani told members of the Los Angeles group, who nodded in understanding. Israel and Los Angeles have similar climates and both are facing a dire shortage of water.
Twenty years ago, Shani said, Israel decided to save almost all its fresh water for human and animal consumption, which prompted the country to build desalination plants. He predicted that within four years, all waste (sewage) water would be processed and used to water crops.
Fresh water remains a major problem, Shani said, because seawater threatens to seep into the almost empty aquifers, contaminating them: "Unless we have a fantastic winter rainwise this year, the lawns will be dry, and the farmers will see their water cut 75 percent."
Villaraigosa inspects the remnants of kassam rockets launched from Gaza into Sderot. Official photo.
At the CleanTech roundtable, the L.A. delegation was briefed by some of Israel's leading green industrialists and entrepreneurs, including Ofer Bloch, president of Netafim, the world leader in drip-irrigation systems.
Although familiar with drip irrigation, which delivers water and fertilizer directly to plant roots, thereby reducing evaporation, the Los Angeles group was surprised to learn that Netafim's systems reduce water use by up to 50 percent and increase crop output approximately 30 percent.
The mayor noted that his own home sports an underground irrigation system.
"It worked well until some gophers came along," he said, eliciting a laugh. "No, really, it was a problem."
The delegation's members were particularly captivated by Shai Agassi, the boyish entrepreneur who plans to create a series of electric charging and battery exchange stations for the first generation of electric cars. If the project succeeds, Israel would become the first to establish a recharging network, and it could be a huge boon to the electric car industry, because existing models typically run only 100 miles on a single charge.
Agassi has signed an agreement whereby Renault-Nissan will provide the electric cars.
"We're creating swap stations," Agassi said of the network of 150 stations that would extend throughout Israel. "They look like a car wash. You exchange your car battery and drive off." The goal, he continued, "is to break the monopoly on oil imports and to lessen carbon monoxide emissions."
While impressed, some delegates asked whether the electricity for the cars would always be generated in a green way. Agassi responded that different municipalities and countries would need to make that decision.
H. David Nahai, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power CEO, noted that Israel "is still paying a great deal of attention to expanding coal capacity to provide energy, the source we feel is most problematic because it emits CO2. In Israel, 70 percent of its energy is produced by coal, compared to 46 percent in L.A. But Israel has also made tremendous advances in water conservation, desalinization and harnessing solar power."
Nahai also said he would like to see all new Israeli buildings incorporate many of the energy- and water-saving features that are now cropping up in Los Angeles, due to a new green building ordinance. The features range from waterless toilets and low-flow showers to compact fluorescent lighting and gray-water reusage utilizing rainwater captured on the roof or in a cistern. Israelis, in contrast, do not capture rainwater, but they do heat their water via rooftop solar panels.
"Israelis and Angelenos have a lot to learn from each other," Nahai concluded.
For his part, the mayor spoke with personal emotion about the trip's impact, not only on the future of Los Angeles but also on himself and his children, who accompanied him on the trip. Though he has visited Israel twice before, Villaraigosa called this visit "particularly meaningful."
"Bringing a delegation of top officials focused on security and the environment is an added element. The mayor added that he "grew up attending Catholic schools. My faith is important to me and my family.
"We feel a tremendous connection to the Holy Land and to the people of Israel," he said.