Swapping suits and ties for spandex shorts, and cocktail glasses for plastic bottles of water, some 20 diplomats biked 17 kilometers through the Carmel Forest Sunday morning as part of a Tourism Ministry initiative to show the diplomatic corps Israel beyond its conflict with the Palestinians and over the handlebars of a mountain bike.
“We are trying to connect the ambassadors and the diplomatic corps to Israel through bike riding, and not only through talking,” said Amir Halevi, director-general of the Tourism Ministry, who led the pack up and down a dirt path in the Mount Carmel National Park and Nature Reserve, as well as through the hilly, paved streets of the Druse village of Usfiya.
“We want to expose them to a wide range of bike trails and people,” said Halevi, a biking enthusiast who also brought his son along for the ride. The overarching idea is to show the diplomats Israel beyond the cities, he said, and to let them see that “Israel is not only diplomatic issues, but also great views.”
And if by uploading pictures on social media, the riders also encourage tourism, that too is a benefit, he added.
Sunday’s ride was the third in a series, with previous rides in Ramat Hanadiv near Binyamina, and Mitzpe Ramon. The ministry provides bikes and gear for those who need it, but not all of them do.
For instance, Austria’s Ambassador Martin Weiss brought his own bike, helmet and gloves and seemed to effortlessly finish the strenuous two-and-a-half hour ride. The only other ambassador on the tour was another European from a country where bike-riding is very popular, Belgian Ambassador Olivier Belle.
Among the other riders were seven diplomats from the French Embassy; the military attaché from India, who said the ride was a good way to relax following the last week’s jam-packed visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; two diplomats from Zambia; a Korean diplomat; and the husband of the number two at the Mexican embassy.
Those who joined were a self-selected group, as the ride, in Sunday morning’s sweltering heat, was leg-achingly difficult.
The ride, which began and ended at a parking lot outside the Muhraka Monastery near Daliat al-Carmel, had the bicyclists ride through thick groves of oak, carob and terebinth trees, as well as past grazing cows and sheep. It ended with a Druse breakfast prepared over a traditional open taboon oven. In the middle, the diplomats rested while guzzling water and listening as Haayel Azzam, a Druse tour guide, gave a brief explanation of his community.
“It is a great way to see Israel,” said Weiss. “You go to places you would usually not get to. It is not diplomatic conferences or meetings.”
He said that the Austrian Foreign Ministry has similar outings, except that in Austria they go skiing.
The rides take place on Sunday, which is a day off for the diplomatic community stationed here. “It’s a great way to spend your time, to get out and do some cycling,” said India’s Military Attaché Tejpal Singh. He said it was also a good opportunity to meet other diplomats and learn a little about aspects of the country that may be less known.
For instance, this time the focus was on the Druse, and last time, during a ride near Mitzpe Ramon, it was about how Israel grows grapes in the middle of the desert.
Belgian Ambassador Olivier Belle, an experienced rider who brought a visiting niece as well as his own helmet, has participated in the other rides as well.
“I want to discover different places of Israel,” Belle said. “I want to go outside of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv axis.”
Asked why more ambassadors did not participate, he said with a smile and a great deal of understatement, “It is not easy, the temperature is 30 degrees.” In addition, he said, many of the ambassadors are now away on summer holiday.
These types of trips, he said, help him better understand the texture of Israeli life, something that assists him in reporting back to Brussels about what goes on in the country. He will not report back specifically on the ride, “but I use it as background information.”
In addition, he said every two weeks delegations and visitors arrive from Belgium – political and business people – and they always ask what they can do, where they can go, on a free afternoon.
“This helps me give good advice,” he said. “And it helps them discover another aspect of the country, and to understand it better. I try my best to understand and report back as honestly and objectively as possible. And to do that it is important to bring in all the country’s nuances.”