May 15, 2008
Israel and I: The first 60 years
(Page 3 - Previous Page)Golda's aide first nixed the idea.
"Mrs. Meir may be prime minister, but she is a woman, after all," he objected.
Jerry went ahead and publicly presented Golda with her "portrait," and she had a good laugh.
Israel was gradually changing and beginning to adopt American customs and institutions, so we were overjoyed when we spotted a Jerusalem restaurant advertising itself as Israel's first pizza outlet (in the olden days, there was nothing like travel abroad to induce a desperate longing for down-home dishes).
A group of computer mavens from UCLA entered and waited expectantly for the pizza. It finally arrived in the form of a pita drenched in tomato sauce.
We left in deep disappointment. Lenny Kleinrock, later to win fame as the father of the Internet, led the walkout, shouting at the top of his voice, "Don't eat the pizza, don't eat the pizza."
Another family trip and again our historic timing was on the mark. We arrived shortly after the hijacking of a plane full of Israelis to Uganda, followed by their spectacular rescue at Entebbe. The sense of relief and pride was still in the air.
Our friends, Dan and Ella Almagor, had made reservations for the four of us at a convent, built at a point overlooking Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee, where, the nuns told us, Jesus had walked on water.
The accommodations were cheap, but the household rules were strict: Lockout after 8 p.m. and no alcohol on the premises. Nevertheless, we smuggled in a bottle of wine and sat on an outdoor patio, a full moon rising over Kinneret, sipping of the forbidden fruit of the vine. We were in the Holy Land and life was good.
We decided to combine this trip with an exploration of Egypt. Shortly before we arrived in Israel, four Palestinian terrorists had hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro off the Egyptian coast and killed Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American Jew.
International tourists cancelled their visits to Egypt in droves, so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. We had booked a single room in a Cairo hotel, and instead were given the entire empty floor. Rachel and I walked through the Cairo slums, the only Westerners in sight, without feeling a moment's anxiety. We visited Luxor and floated down the Nile to Aswan.
On the way back, we boarded an El Al plane at Cairo airport, and Rachel got emotional.
"Never in my life did I expect to take an Israeli plane at an Egyptian airport," she said.
I had been on a press trip to Romania, recovering from the bloody overthrow of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and the plane from Bucharest to Ben-Gurion Airport was filled with Russian Jews, finally free to leave the Soviet Union. Their welcome to Israel was an emotional high.
We joined the Almagors on a trip to Cyprus and ran right into the Greek-Turkish confrontation on the divided island. Apparently, the Israeli-Palestinian standoff wasn't the only insoluble conflict in the region.
Family visits and a week in Prague on the way home.
I am invited to cover a two-day conference on the always-popular subject of Israel-Diaspora relations, at the official residence of President Ezer Weizman in Jerusalem.
Some 230 of the better minds in Israel and abroad attended. Weizman tirelessly talked up the crucial importance of aliyah, in much the same words Ben-Gurion had used 45 years earlier.
My article on the "dialogue" was headlined, "Talking past each other," which pretty well told the story.
The Histadrut, Israel's labor federation, invited a few reporters for a tour, though the timing was a bit baffling. Before independence, Histadrut had been practically a state-within-a-budding-state, but now it was divesting itself of its health services, youth villages and retirement centers.
The trip brought home Israel's transformation, for better or worse, from a semisocialist egalitarian society to a semicapitalist one, with a widening gap between the rich and poor.
Ben-Gurion University hosted a conference marking the 20th anniversary of the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt, brokered by President Jimmy Carter.
Many of the key diplomats who took part in that momentous event reminisced how the personal chemistry between the participants had been at least as important in reaching agreement as boundary lines and timetables. I found the role of the human factor in historic decisions oddly reassuring.
As a bonus, we were caravanned to Hebron for a long morning meeting with an avuncular, though slightly shaky, Yasser Arafat, while on the same afternoon we had an even longer session with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
The main topic of conversation was the disintegrating Wye River accord, with each side blaming the other for its failure.
The second intifada was in full swing, tourism from America was all but dead, the economy was hurting badly, and the mood was depressed.
As a desperation measure, the government Tourist Office invited a group of Jewish reporters from America to show them that fun was still to be had -- at least in the Negev.
Except for the beaches of Eilat, the Negev had never been much of a tourist draw, but now the desert area emerged as the safest part of the country.
The Negev actually proved fascinating, even to a veteran visitor to Israel, but we wound up in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where we found hotels and stores empty, even after slashing prices 50 percent to 70 percent.
One man's misery is another man's gain, and our hosts put me up at the legendary King David Hotel in Jerusalem. I got a suite usually reserved for American presidents and large enough to house the next Zionist Congress.