The U.S. State Department travel advisory against Israel cannot be good for that country's image, much less for its beleaguered tourism industry. Tourism is down by half compared to the period before "The Situation," or Intifada II, broke out in September. It's hard to say how many people are staying away because of the advisory, but the issue was important enough for Israeli officials to raise it in meetings this week with their State Department counterparts.
The State Department issues an advisory when it believes that the lives or property of Americans are at risk in the country in question. Thus, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Bosnia make the list.
But when it comes to Israel, the advisory seems like a very blunt solution to what is a much more nuanced problem. As visitor after visitor to that country can attest, the vast majority of destinations within Israel are safe. No Americans have been injured visits to Tel Aviv, West Jerusalem, the Wall, Haifa, the Dead Sea, Safed or the Sea of Galilee, to name but a few sites and cities. In Eilat, the only warnings you need heed are written on the side of a sunscreen tube.
Of course, there are other places that should inspire more caution. I would think twice before visiting Ramallah, Jericho or Bethlehem, or of wandering, as I used to, the streets of East Jerusalem.
But even in these areas, the danger is not so much in being an American, but in being mistaken for an Israeli Jew or, in some cases, for an Arab. In the Palestinian-Israeli propaganda war, both sides court American public opinion. Both sides look to America to wag its collective finger at the other. In this sense, the first side responsible for an American casualty loses.
Undoubtedly, the Situation has created no-go zones for Israelis and Arabs. As Larry Derfner reports in this issue, former oases of understanding have become no man's lands. Elsewhere, my friends in the West Bank town of Efrat don't expect visitors from Tel Aviv.
But to mischaracterize travel throughout Israel as unsafe when in actuality the greatest dangers are found in areas in or near Palestinian control makes the advisory itself seem like a Palestinian propaganda tool, a way of damaging Israel's image and economy. Of course, true to Yasser Arafat's style, this strategy also harms the Palestinians themselves in tourist meccas like Bethlehem.
It might be wise to let the State Department know it's time the advisory be lifted. Call the Bureau of Consular Affairs at (202) 647-5226 or write the bureau at U.S. Department of State, 2201 C St., ACS/OCS/NEA Room 4811, Washington, D.C., 20520. To read the advisory, visit travel.state.gov.
If the State Department wants to issue travel advisories, let them do so for places where at least a dozen innocent Americans have been killed or wounded in the past year alone, and where hundreds more have been traumatized and held hostage to bomb threats and gunfire. But then why should the State Department concern itself with our public schools?