Before the closing session of the fifth KKL-JNF World Leadership Conference, participants gathered for a festive lunch, attended by Eilat Mayor, Meir Yitzhak-HaLevi and Omar al-Ghoull, responsible for the Aqaba area in Jordan.
Introducing the session, Laurence Franks, President of KKL-JNF Spain, briefly described some of KKL-JNF's work within the Spanish Jewish community that numbers about twenty thousand people. He congratulated Yitzhak HaLevi on the great improvements in the town of which he is Mayor. "We are proud that KKL-JNF is involved in the Bird Park, Switzerland Park and Holland Forest," he said. He concluded his address with an inquiry on how Eilat intended to compete with the expanding port of Aqaba.
Meir Yitzhak-Halevi: "I would like to express my thanks to the KKL-JNF's Board of Directors who chose to visit the State of Israel's southern gateway, to see the development underway here and understand the relationships that have been forged in this region. I shall begin with our links to our sister-town of Aqaba. I decided to set up a forum headed by Semmo Samorai to strengthen the relationship between the two towns - an initiative that has the support of the Foreign Ministry. For the past four years, nine joint Eilat-Aqaba committees have been in operation and these shared undertakings have succeeded because leaders in the region have identified local interests and concluded that problems can only be overcome by working together.
"The joint committees are concerned with environment, ecology, tourism, education, security and industry. We have close and amicable relations with the town's governors, and, if things continue to move in this direction, we shall have created a region that speaks the language of peace. I hope our neighbors to the south - the Egyptians - will join us in this. We are all partners in this wonderful gulf area and hope to see it prosper.
"There is a lot of talk of competition between Eilat, Aqaba and Taba and I have stated my position to the government: I would like to see the whole region flourish. If things are good in Taba and Aqaba, then Eilat will prosper, too. I am happy to say this, because that is what is actually happening amongst our neighbors. We want the government to understand that Eilat is one of Israel's strategic assets and I hope that the speed of decision-making processes here will resemble that of our friends in Aqaba, where bureaucratic procedures are much shorter.
"I came here from the field of education and still regard myself as an educator. From the moment I was elected I have made education the town's top priority. Education is the key to economic and social growth. I embarked upon a project that seemed very ambitious at the time - to turn Eilat into a university town. There have been several cynical reactions but with the help of Professor Carmi, President of Ben-Gurion University, and of our partners in the Toronto Community, we have effected the transformation. We started with 170 students, and now have over a thousand. We hope to reach three thousand within the next ten years, and this revolution is already having an effect on local life. Each of our students receives a full scholarship throughout his or her period of study. Don't ask where all this money comes from. Only a week ago, on Independence Day, we presented scholarships of over a million shekels - which is unprecedented - and I believe that our project will succeed.
"The university extension in Eilat will focus on teaching marine biology at an international level, on environmental and desert studies, tourism, and training for hoteliers and providers of recreational facilities. In the future I am hoping that we shall also include geological and seismic studies, in conjunction with our neighbors."
Yitzhak-HaLevi presented Moshe Kon, President of KKL-JNF Holland, with a copy of the book "The Desert Speaks" on the occasion of his birthday. "The desert itself is precious and it is our duty to preserve it," he said.
Omar al-Ghoull, responsible for the Aqaba district, spoke of his firm belief in regional cooperation. "We share the same conditions and we all live a long way from our countries' major cities. In emergencies, it's obvious that helping each other is much more efficient than waiting for aid to arrive from Tel Aviv or Amman. I have frequent meetings with the Mayor of Eilat, at which we update each other on what is happening. We have to make peace a reality and promote bilateral projects. On your next visit I hope to see you in Aqaba."
KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler thanked the Mayor of Eilat, who is doing so much to develop the town. He also thanked Al-Ghoull. "Omar is one of the finest examples of successful cooperation. We hope that the relations between Eilat and Aqaba will serve as a model for relations between Israel, Jordan and Egypt and also - one day, perhaps - Saudi Arabia. We believe that everyone can take this road to peace in the future."
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