Middle Israel: When Warren met Zion

You have just made a statement more effective than 1,000 Zionist spin doctors.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
As we embark on your first tour of our beloved land of milk and honey, tears and vision, faith and strife, let me welcome you on behalf of the Israel Air Force to the land where tourists from all over the world flock for excitement, enlightenment and inspiration which they often express by planting in its arid soil plants a bit more tender than the $4 billion you have just sown here. As the world's most successful and admired investment guru, you have just made a statement more effective than 1,000 Zionist spin doctors will ever be able to make. The fact that you had your $136 billion company put a fortune in this famously turbulent country without even visiting it has been particularly heartening for us; some people see this country every day, but will never say anything good about it, or honestly share with it one workday's income. Others just avoid work, as a matter of principle. Anyhow, welcome aboard this Anafa ("heron") chopper, a loyal, selfless and routine participant in all that is right, wrong and mad about this country, from ingenious battlefield medicine and daring terrorist chases to the seasonal rescue of several idiots who got lost hiking in the desert without water, maps, hats or a compass. Just under us you now see our national gateway, which you were told is Ben-Gurion Airport. Actually that's inaccurate. The locals refer to it as Natbag Alpayim, acronym for "Ben-Gurion Airport 2000" - an allusion to the original deadline for its inauguration, which in reality didn't happen until 2004. Hopefully, they don't run your beloved Nebraska this way. Then again, that's better than the Tel Aviv subway, which is more than 30 years overdue, and still nowhere in sight. This bustling highway here, Route 1, connects our political and financial capitals, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Other than on the Jewish Day of Atonement, traffic hardly ever abates here. You may wonder how come there is no railway running alongside it; so do we. Now look on both sides of the highway: over there you see affluent and rapidly expanding Modi'in. Until just over a decade ago it didn't exist; now it is a major magnet for yuppies, who already generate handsome revenues for that mall here and this multiscreen cinema complex over there. Like all these spaghetti junctions, the malls and cinema complexes with which this country is now brimming didn't exist anywhere in Israel until the late 1980s. Now look at the other end: those are the decrepit towns of Ramle and Lod, two of the country's most festering crime pockets and social black holes, places where drug deals and gang wars are often conducted in broad daylight. The bad news is that solutions are nowhere in sight. The good news is that in each of these towns, as in every other Israeli city no matter how poorly managed, there is a mayor who, unlike you, Mr. Buffett, has his own driver as well as a salary that easily exceeds the annual $100,000 with which you are known to make do. Now you see the hills ahead of us? Those are the foothills of the Judean Mountains. In these wheat fields just before them the embryonic Israeli army was dealt a stinging defeat in 1948 by the Jordanian Legion. It was here that Ariel Sharon was severely wounded as a 20-year-old lieutenant. The man who evacuated him in his own arms, and thus saved the future general and prime minister's life, was later the finance minister who ended Israel's hyper-inflation crisis in the mid-'80s. Sharon, by the way, as minister of industry at the time, voted against his rescuer's plan. Anyhow, we are now entering the Judean Mountains. The place the highway penetrates - a strategic flashpoint since antiquity - was controlled in '48 by Arab forces who sniped from the surrounding summits at whatever drove below. You can still see the wrecks there, and there and there. The Israeli commander here was 26-year-old Yitzhak Rabin. He lost on these slopes some 1,000 men, usually hardly 20 years old. To the east you can see the town of Beit Shemesh, which for years was a backwater with several thousand socially disenfranchised inhabitants, until they were joined by an influx of secular immigrants from East Europe and religious ones from the West who more than trebled the original town and turned it into a bedroom community for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Now we'll be taking a sharp left, northward, avoiding Jerusalem which you'll see more thoroughly later, but before we make the turn look there: that's where David struck Goliath. Now, as we leave Route 1, take several fingers north and south of it and you get our pre-'67 border; that means you are right now entering the West Bank. ON THE far left, along the coastline, you see Tel Aviv's increasingly Manhattanesque skyline. That, along with the urban sprawl to its north and south, is our Silicon Valley, demographic center of gravity and cultural heartbeat. It's the closest Israel comes to what Western visitors consider normal. The town ahead of us, with the broad, bright and smoldering building over there, is Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian presidency. The congregation of bulldozers, jeeps, demonstrators and troops just under us straddles the famous fence, which in its turn monumentalizes our historic failures to plan and legendary ability to improvise. The red rooftops over there are the Israeli settlement of Ofra, where the biblical Gideon came from. Though surrounded by all these Palestinian villages, some of the Jews here derive inspiration from Gideon's defeat with 300 men of a massive invading army. Ehud Olmert, for his part, remains unimpressed and his West Bank evacuation plan is about places like this. Ahead of us is Nablus, and out there is where Joseph was abandoned by his jealous brothers. Just ahead of us, where you see those feverishly dancing dudes with white, woolen skullcaps, is Joseph's burial site, and just further ahead, where you see those keffiyeh-clad undergrads firing Kalashnikovs into the air, is A-Najah University. No, they are not celebrating their commencement. THE VAST farmland ahead of us is the Jezreel Valley, which brings us back to pre-'67 Israel. A century ago this was all swamps, until Jewish pioneers drained it and turned it into the future Jewish state's breadbasket. The small communities dotting the valley are mostly the kibbutzim those pioneers built, probably the only places where modern people once actually gave as much as they could and took as much as they needed. The mountains ahead of us are already Lower Galilee, and the town over there is Nazareth. This is where Jesus spent his boyhood and where he delivered his first sermon. The village over there, Kafr Kana, is where he first performed a miracle, turning water into wine. And these much higher mountains are already Upper Galilee. There, to the west, is the Tefen industrial park, where we'll soon land and whose industrial wonders and financial might you should by now know much better than me. To the east is Mount Meron, the highest in Galilee. On its summit you see a forest of sci-fi antennae with which we monitor our Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian neighbors. On its foothills, less than half-an-hour's car ride east of Tefen, you can see thousands of people swaying, chanting, praying, barbecuing freshly slaughtered sheep, bowing for a blessing from what they believe is a sage, and giving their three-year-olds their first haircut while fiddlers and clarinetists play merry tunes nearby. What they are celebrating is the memorial day of an ancient mystic who, by hiding for 13 years in a cave here, defied imperial Rome's prohibition of Jewish observance. Police say nearly half-a-million Israelis get here every May to touch that rabbi's grave, by far this hi-tech power's largest annual gathering. So how does the frighteningly organized, immaculate, rational, ultramodern and madly profitable part of Israel you just bought sit with all this? Frankly, we have no idea, but from what we know of you, you must have, in your own way, figured this out prior to placing here your first large-scale non-American investment, and your third-largest investment ever anywhere. Haven't you?