I'm so tired I can hardly type, so we'll see how far I get with this. Today was spent travelling through northern Israel in a huge American nine seater 4x4. We set off from Tel Aviv just after 8am. The traffic congestion heading out of the city was New York-esque in proportion. We ended up making a detour to avoid a huge traffic jam not far from Nazareth, as we made our way up to the Golan Heights. The further north you head, the more spectacular the scenery becomes. We headed for a Kibbutz just over the fence from the South Lebanon border village of Addaisseh. If you look on the map (click to enlarge) it's right at the northern tip of Israel. Looking over into Lebanon I felt in a timewarp, as I remembered the first time I had been to the East/West German border 31 years ago. As our guide told us all about the history of the area, we suddenly heard distant gunfire. We were told it could be cross border gunfire or it might be a wedding. A few minutes later there was a huge bang not that far away. Our guide told of a cross border attack by Hizbollah terrorists who, one night, attacked the Kibbutz and kidnapped several children. A three month baby was shot in the head. The baby's twin brother is now a friend of our guide. It was from Addaisseh that many of the rockets were launched in 2006, which did so much damage to Israel.
From there we travelled across to the Syrian border (pic). The Golan Heights were annexed by Israel in 1967 and have remained a bone of contention ever since. There are very few settlements in the area as there is great uncertainty over its future. Rabin was apparently ready to hand the Heights back to Syria as part of a wider middle eastern peace deal, but he didn't live to take it further. Looking down over the border, there are many villages and towns visible in the valley below. Again, memories of East Germany came back to me.
From there we travelled south to the Sea of Galilee. It was this part of the day that told me what the expression 'Holy Land' means. All of us were truly humbled by what we saw and experienced this afternoon. We visited three holy sites, which figure prominently in the Bible - all of which were within a stone's throw of each other on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. First on the agenda was the site of the feeding of the five thousand - then to the point where Jesus is said to have walked on water and finally - and most memorably for all of us, the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. On the site of the feeding of the five thousand it almost appeared to us that there were five thousand German tourists there expecting a reprise.
We all know these stories from the bible, and I suppose I have always considered each of them a work of fiction. But when you actually stand on the very ground that Jesus was said to have stood on, it makes you reevaluate some very long held views. I have to say, though, that bearing in mind its historical significance, the Mount of Beatitudes is a rubbish dump. Literally. Look at the picture (right) of our guide, as he read from the Sermon on the Mount and you will see rubbish by his feet. It's astonishing that the Israeli government doesn't seem to worry about the upkeep of many of its historical gems.
This evening we went out for a meal on the beachfront in Tel Aviv. It was in a restaurant not far from Mike's Bar, which was the bar bombed by two Britons not long ago. Perhaps I should not have been hugely surprised to be security swept as I walked into the restaurant. But I was.
Tomorrow, the more political parts of our trip get underway. We're meeting the British Ambassador to Israel for breakfast, then going to Tel Aviv university for briefings on the peace process and counter terrorism policy. On Wednesday we are spending the day in Jerusalem, including a tour of the Holocaust museum and a meeting with the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister who is a Druse member of the Knesset. Then on Thursday we're travelling to the West Bank to meet the Chief Negotiator for the Palestinian Authority Saeb Erekat.
It really is true to say that the only way of properly understanding the problems of the Middle East is to visit it and hear first hand from those at the sharp end. We're not just hearing the Israeli side, we're meeting with Druse and Palestinian representatives too. It's a real education and a privilege.
The day started with breakfast at our hotel with the British Ambassador to Israel, Tom Phillips. It's his second tour of duty here and he gave us an overview of the situation as he saw it. I asked him about Tony Blair's role here, which I hadn't realised was purely related to economic development in Gaza and the West Bank. For some reason I had thought he had a role in the peace process.
We then spent the morning at the rather impressive University of Tel Aviv. The campus is incredibly well kept, possibly due to the fact that the students haven't returned yet.
Our first meeting of the day was with Professor Asher Susser, the former Director of the Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern Research. He taught me more about the Middle East in half an hour than I thought possible. He believes that for the first time since 1967 Israel now suffers from an existential threat. He said Egypt has declined in importance and influence, especially with regard to Gaza and the Sudan. He believes there are now only three important players in the Middle East peace process, none of which is an Arab state. Arabs are not calling the shots any longer, he maintained. The three states are Israel itself, Turkey and Iran. I questioned him about this and asked why he failed to mention Syria or Jordan. He said Syria was now just the front man for Iran and played second fiddle. Iran had replaced the Soviet Union as the main influence on the Syrian regime.
Professor Susser maintains that the future of Lebanon is up for grabs between the Sunnis and the Shias, but because the centre of gravity in middle east politics has shifted from Cairo to the Persian Gulf and Iran is now establishing a Mediterranean presence through Lebanon. There is a retreat of secular politics and that Islamists are shaping discourse and politics in the area.
He does, however, believe that Iranian expansion may well be contained in 2009 because of the dramatic fall in the price of oil. Every $ fall in the oil price means $1 billion fewer dollars in revenue for Iran. This may well provide the opportunity to open a proper dialogue with Iran. He says you cannot boycott Iran out of existence. Pressure must be ratcheted up on the Iranian regime as a precursor to negotiation. He says Israel should prepare for a US-Iranian dialogue because it is surely coming. The US should concede Iranian pre-eminence in the gulf in return for full western recognition - but that's where a line should be drawn. The US must make clear that the Iranians cannot be allowed to interfere in the Mediterranean.
He likened the Iranian nuclear situation to that of Japan, which has the capability to make a bomb, but hasn't actually done so. He said it was up to the four great powers, plus maybe Russia, to supervise and verify any Iranian nuclear programme.
Later in the morning we had an economic briefing from Professor Dan Ben-David from the university's Department of Public Policy. He is a leading Kadima supporter and had been set on a political career, but next week he is starting a new job as head of the Israeli equivalent of the Brookings Institution. He started off by giving us a set of very impressive figures about the Israeli economy. Foreign investment has gone up from $600 million in 1993 to $13,500 in 2006. He was keen to stress that Israelis are some of the most innovative people in the world, with patent applications on a level with those of America. But then the good news stopped. Living standards were not as high as other nations with equivalent economies, poverty was higher and so was inequality. All have been getting worse since the 1970s. Labour productivity is a quarter lower than in the USA, with only 71% of males in employment (UK figure is 81%). Professor Be-David clearly believes Israel has the potential to become a thriving market economy, but is not quite there yet.
Our third session of the morning was spent at the Aerodynamic Lab, where we received a talk about, well, aerodynamics. Quite honestly it might as well have been in Hebrew, as I didn't understand a word of it. I got ungraded Physics O Level, so I wasn't entirely surprised.
The last engagement of the morning was an hour long tour of the Israeli Diaspora Museum. The museum explains how Jews have come to move to various countries throughout the world.
We spent the afternoon at the Institute for Counter Terrorism. I'm going to come over all Jack Bauer now and say that I would love to tell you what we talked about, but then I would have to kill you. There were some fairly bleak messages about the rise of radical islamic terrorism and what the West, and mainstream muslims, will need to do to counter it.
Tonight we're off for dinner at a private house, and tomorrow we're spending the day in Jerusalem. Later.
UPDATE: Due to being extremely tired I wasn't particularly looking forward to going out tonight, but it really was an evening to remember. They say you can't really get to know a country until you get to know its people. Well tonight we were invited to dinner at a private house in Tel Aviv by a lovely lady called Evelyn. There were about 15 of us altogether, including a journalist from the Haaretz newspaper and a senior official from the Foreign Ministry. We talked about all sorts of things, but I was keen to learn what they all thought of Benjamin Netanyahu. He seems to me like a politician who talks tough in opposition but is then rather more liberal in power.
I'll be writing up the day's events in Jerusalem a bit later, but I thought I'd just post this. We have just spent an hour talking to the leaders of one of Israel's minor parties at the Knesset. We then went into the chamber, but as we made our way out of the building we saw arouind 100 people runniging towards us shouting and brandishing red flags, having breached the security barrier. The security people told us to run in the opposite direction. I have to say we ambled as we were more interested in getting pictures on our cameraphones (I will add one later). For a fleeting moment I must admit I wondered what might happen next, but everything was OK. They made their point and within a few minutes were making their way out again. I had a word with one of them and it turned out that it was a good old fashioned student protest about education cuts.
Those who seem to think I am on an indoctrination trip and that I can't possibly have a mind of my own (in which case why do they come back here?) will be delighted to know that tomorrow will be spent visiting Ramallah, going to a 'refugee camp' and talking to various representatives from the Palestinian Authority and the British Consul. Then we're going to Bethlehem. Unlike some of the people who have commented on previous threads I like to see both sides of the argument.
It's been such a full day I am not quite sure where to start. We left the hotel in Tel Aviv to spend the whole day in Jerusalem. The traffic there has to be seen. The morning started with a briefing by one of President Peres's advisers. We talked about the history of Jerusalem and its very confusing geography. For those who haven't been here, it's almost impossible to explain without being on the ground. We were taken to a vantage point high up on a hillside overlooking the Mount of Olives and the old city. From there you can also see the security fence and the West Bank.
We then took a tour of the Old City with an absolutely superb tour. It was great walking through the Suq - row upon row of shops. The variety was astonishing. They don't do political correctness in Jerusalem. I nearly bought a supply of T Shirts with VISIT ISRAEL BEFORE ISRAEL VISITS YOU for some of the anti Jewish commenters who have infested this site of late. There were also T shirts of Yasser Arafat.
To stand where history was made - rather like when we went to the Sea of Galilee on Monday - was an absolute privilege. To trace the path to the crucifiction and see the spot where Jesus died was incredible. We then visited the holy wall just under the Mount of Olives. I have to say it was bizarre to hear the Muslim call to prayer while looking at the Mount of Olives, but people should realise that Jerusalem is a city which welcomes people of all religions. I suppose I had thought of it as primarily a Jewish place, but it is far from that, with peoples of all backgrounds and religions finding it a place of religious significance.
After that we headed of to Yad Vashem, the new Holocaust museum and memorial. It was only opened in 2005 and is a very impressive building. I have to say though, having been to a couple of concentration camps, I found it less emotional than I was expecting. On visits to Buchenwald and Dachau I found it incredibly harrowing, but here - perhaps because of the crowds - I didn't. Even typing that, I feel slightly guilty.
We then finished the day at the Knesset, where we were due to meet the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, who is Druse, but he couldn't make it. Instead, we had an hour with a fascinating memebr of the Knesset, Binyamin Elon. He is the leader of the National Union party, which holds nine of the 120 seats in the Knesset and was Minister of Tourism under Ariel Sharon. His party is certainly right wing, but he holds some very unconventional views on the future of the West Bank. He is firmly against a two state solution and favours a confederation on the West Bank, with Jordan and Israel holding joint sovereignty of the area. He argues that there has never been such a thing as a Palestinian nation and that up until recently, the inhabitants of the West Bank have always been called Arabs.
We didn't get back to Tel Aviv until 8.30pm. I tried to find a bar showing the West Ham v Man U game but failed lamentably. Just as well considering the result.
Before I came here, several people told me that Israeli food was awful. They could not be more wrong. The breakfast in the Carlton Hotel has to be seen to be believed (the Carlton is highly recommended - one of the best hotels I have ever stayed in), and every single meal has been memorable. And for all the right reasons! Today in Jerusalem I had the best smoked salmon and cream cheese onion bagel I have ever had.
I'm very much looking forward to tomorrow, when we will be spending the day in Ramallah and Bethlehem. We're seeing Mahmoud Abbas's Chief of Staff, a representative of the UN and the British Consul to the Palestinian Authority during the course of the morning, as well as visiting a refugee camp.
Another early start, leaving the hotel at 7.45am for the 75 minute drive to Ramallah. For those who don't know, Ramallah is on the West Bank and houses the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. In order to get into Ramallah we had to change buses as our Jewish driver is not allowed to cross into the West Bank. During the short drive to the PA HQ we drove through the streets of Ramallah, which is one of the more prosperous West Bank towns. Indeed, it looked little different to most Arab towns. We arrived a bit early and had to sit outside the PA Compound. Eventually we were allowed in and had the opportunity of viewing the morning marching by PA soldiers. Not sure their marching technique would quite make Sandhurst!
The security, it has to be said, was lax in the extreme. We were let into the building which houses President Abbas's office and we could have gone anywhere we wanted. We were shown into a waiting area before our meeting with Rafiq Husseini, Abbas's Chief of Staff. The waiting area was opposite Yassir Arafat's old office. Sorry, but I couldn't resist the pics...
We were with Mr Husseini for 45 minutes but left the meeting wishing it could have lasted the whole morning. What an impressive man. You got the feeling that if they were all like him, peace would break out in an instant. Calm, collected, authoritative and non-dogmatic - an ideal man to be one of the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiators. We had hoped to meet the Chief Negotiator for the Palestinian Authority Saeb Erekat, but unfortunately he proved to be otherwise engaged. Husseini made clear that little progress was likely to be made in the immediate future, due to the forthcoming Israeli elections, the change of US President and also the fact that there might well be Palestinian elections at the beginning of January. So while there is an Arab Peace plan up for discussion the week after next, it is not likely to get much traction. Olmert can't deliver the Israelis and it's doubtful whether Abbas could deliver wholesale support from the PA at this time, especially given the position of Hamas in Gaza. We asked him about Hamas and his hope is that they will lose electoral ground at the next elections after people have experienced the horrendous way they have governed Gaza over the last two years. He doesn't think they are getting much traction on the West Bank. He made the point that aid money can never replace the freedom to live in your homeland. He felt the economy of the West Bank was starting to revive after a very difficult few years, but poverty was still a real problem. Travel rights would remain a problem for families who have been split up. As we left, we visited the tomb of Yassir Arafat, which forms an impressive part of the PA compound. For some he remains a hero. For others, he was a man who led a completely corrupt regime.
So in the middle of the morning, we left the PA Compound to travel the short distance to the UNWRA Refugee Camp.
We arrived at the United Nations refugee camp in Ramallah at around 11 and met the head of the camp, a very charming Palestinian who was born there and lived there all his life. We talked to him for 45 minutes about the camp and the problems he has. Six thousand people live there. It's certainly not got the worst conditions of the various camps but there's little doubt that housing issues are the main area of concern. He told us he had ten children, earns $800 a month (far higher than most of his compatriots) and they all live in three rooms - one for boys, one for girls and one for him and his wife. We kept asking him what measures could best improve the living conditions for him and the other 6,000 people who live in the camp, but he repeatedly told us that nothing could alter the fact that they are refugees and have been driven out of their homes. Even though he was born there, and his children are third generation, they all still class themselves as refugees even though they have never even seen the place they regard as home. And this is surely the nub of the whole refugee problem. Until there is an acceptance that there is no going back it is difficult to see how life in the West Bank can be normalised. We can throw as much money at the area as we like (and British aid alone is a massive $500 million over three years), it will never solve what the refugees believe to be the main issue.
We were then taken on a tour of the camp. Conditions were not as bad as I was expecting, to be honest and I suspect things are very different elsewhere. Everybody we met was keen to shake our hands - at no time did we feel under threat. Yesterday we were told we would have to stay in the bus as it was too dangerous, but that went by the board. Several passers by told us their stories. We then went to visit an elderly man and his wife in their own home. And as we walked in we could hardly fail to see the massive picture of Saddam Hussein on the wall! The couple had been driven out of their village on the coast in 1954 and had lived in the camp ever since. They have four children, the oldest one being in Gaza. They haven't seen him in ten years as they cannot travel there without a permit. As we left, Nick Boles pointed up to the picture of Saddam and did a throat slitting gesture. The woman found this very funny - luckily!
We then had a late lunch at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem with the British Consul to the Palestinian Authority, before spending a couple of hours for briefings with two female diplomats from the Israeli foreign ministry.
This evening - the final evening of the trip - we went to a restaurant in Jaffa with two young journalists from Haaretz and another newspaper, the name of which temporarily escapes me.
So that's it. I have to get up at 5.30am to catch the 9.05 El Al flight in the morning. I hope you haven't been too bored by my travel diary. It's been a real eye opener of a trip. Tomorrow I will post something on the lessons I have learned during my trip, and then it will be back to normal blogging.