The Olive Tree Road of Israel: Israel's secret UNESCO treasure

SINCE THE inauguration of the Road and the presentation of its founding Charter and map, local olive routes were established along the four paths of the Olive Tree Road.

 (photo credit: AMBASSADORS’ CLUB OF ISRAEL)
(photo credit: AMBASSADORS’ CLUB OF ISRAEL)
Those who visit the Galilee these days cannot help but notice the feverish activity in the many olive groves that stretch into Israel’s main olive region. The harvest season is in full swing!
In regular years, the harvest season is accompanied by an “Olive Days Festival” that includes tours of the olive groves, participation in the harvest, olive oil tasting and culinary workshops.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the festivities, as it did many aspects of life. The Olive Festival was canceled. The olive harvest focuses mainly on the economic side, as the olive sector is an important agricultural industry where many find their livelihood. But, alas, this year the olive yield is low and farmers are already looking ahead to the 2021 season, which is expected to be much better.
Although the Upper Galilee is the best-known area for olive trees, they can be found all over the country, including in the Negev.
The olive tree is an integral part of the landscape of Israel and of the Mediterranean countries. Its cultural significance as a universal peace symbol and its economic importance has led two important international institutions – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Council of Europe – to adopt resolutions that gave the olive tree an international status.
IN UNESCO, a resolution was adopted in 2003 to establish a Mediterranean Olive Tree Road, with the aim of promoting intercultural dialogue, peace and reconciliation between the countries along the route. The decision called for all countries on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to develop their own olive tree road, also as a sector of economic importance.
On May 13, 2006, the Council of Europe, the body where all European countries are members, adopted a similar resolution establishing the Olive Tree Road as a major cultural route.
As Israel’s ambassador to both UNESCO and the Council of Europe, I had the privilege of being involved in the discussions regarding this Road, and in the adoption of both resolutions.
THEN-PRESIDENT Shimon Peres signs the Road’s founding Charter. (Ambassadors' Club of Israel) THEN-PRESIDENT Shimon Peres signs the Road’s founding Charter. (Ambassadors' Club of Israel)
In UNESCO I was involved in a political debate with the PLO representative, who accused Israel of damaging the Palestinian olive groves. In the end, the Olive Tree Road resolution was adopted unanimously without the divisive anti-Israel allegations.
When I finished my diplomatic mission abroad, I returned to Israel, where I was nominated as the State of Israel’s chief of protocol. I already knew that part of my time would be dedicated to the establishment of the Olive Tree Road of Israel as part of the Mediterranean Olive Tree Road.
The first person I approached was the director general of the Olive Council of Israel, Amin Salman Hassan, a Druze who lost his daughter Maisun in a Palestinian terrorist attack. In addition, I contacted the Jewish National Fund, and together we worked on this project. It took us several years to complete it, which included mapping out the main route from the north to the south of Israel and its four paths: the Upper Galilee, the Lower Galilee, the Coastal Plain and the Negev.
Hassan was instrumental in the completion of the Road, but, alas, he did not get to participate in the official inauguration of the Road on October 28, 2008, at the Olive Tree Festival in Acre. Tragically, Hassan was sick and passed away just weeks before the festival.
His family was invited to the festival opening, which was attended by ministers, heads of localities, and members of the Olive Council. Everyone praised the initiative and hailed the role of Amin Salman Hassan in bringing the Road to fruition. It was only natural for me, when I addressed the audience and presented the map of the Road, to dedicate it to my dear friend and his daughter, Maisun.
Two days later, on October 30, President Shimon Peres signed the founding Charter of the Road at the President’s Garden on the occasion of the annual olive harvest. President Shimon Peres, a champion of peace, was pleased with the idea of the Olive Tree Road.
SINCE THE inauguration of the Road and the presentation of its founding Charter and map, local olive routes were established along the four paths of the Olive Tree Road.
I established local olive tree roads in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem, three mixed Jewish-Arab cities, with a strong message of coexistence.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located where many olive trees grow, was also added to the Olive Tree Road of Jerusalem in a special ceremony attended by Deputy Foreign Minister Majali Wahbe.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. Bush receiving an olive tree gift from Eldan. (Ambassadors' Club of Israel) PRESIDENT GEORGE W. Bush receiving an olive tree gift from Eldan. (Ambassadors' Club of Israel)
A few months ago we read the weekly Torah portion of Noah, the second parasha of Genesis. The story of Noah and the flood marks the origin of the olive tree as a symbol of peace. When the dove returns to Noah’s ark with an olive branch in its beak, it brings with it not just a message that the flood was over but also a renewal of the covenant with the inhabitants of the earth. The olive has become the symbol of world peace, adopted also by the United Nations.
It is only fitting that the symbol of the State of Israel, which has been yearning for peace since its establishment, is entirely based on an olive: two olive branches flanking a menorah (seven-branched candelabrum) spreading light produced by the olive’s fine oil.
Shortly after the Torah portion about Noah we read the portion of Vayera, about the patriarch Abraham. On August 13, 2020, the Abraham Accords were signed in Washington between Israel, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. These accords are a concrete expression of the meaning of the olive tree as a symbol of peace. Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, I have been hoping to propose the establishment of an olive tree road in the United Arab Emirates, as a road symbolizing tolerance, coexistence, peace and reconciliation.
Insha’Allah, when I visit the United Arab Emirates, I hope that my dream will become a reality.
The writer, a former ambassador, is initiator and founder of the Olive Tree Road of Israel.