Southern comforts

A trip to Eilat provides an opportunity to consider Israel, past, present and future.

Eilat 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eilat 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is something biblically magnificent about the red mountains that tower over Eilat, reminiscent of Mount Sinai, not so far away. But the pleasure-loving resort that has grown up on the Red Sea hints more of the Golden Calf. I visited Eilat for a long weekend a week ago for the first time in so long I can't quite remember how many years it's been. I can hear Israelis gasping when I say that. The southernmost city, celebrating its 59th anniversary as the rest of the country readies for the 60th bash, is probably the most popular domestic tourist destination in Israel and is also a big favorite with foreign visitors. It's a part of Israel that is a world of its own: a strange reflection of how the rest of us live, made hazy by the scorching sun and the laid-back pace. I flew down with my six-year-old son from Ben-Gurion Airport to cover the 12th Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition - who says you can't mix business and pleasure? - and took the opportunity of the time-out to consider the state of the nation. Even the flight was symbolic, leaving as it did from the old Ben-Gurion complex where once all international flights were concentrated in a heimische atmosphere in the days when travel abroad was not commonplace. I have flown to Eilat before: sometimes leaving from the now defunct Atarot airport in northern Jerusalem. In 1996, I traveled at least part of the way on a camel, participating in a campaign reconstructing the route taken by Palmahniks and Hanoar Ha'oved youths in January 1945 to map the area at a time when the region was out of bounds to Jews by order of the British Mandate. The original trek - during which Shimon Persky changed his name after seeing the splendid vulture, peres, in Hebrew - ended with the British arresting most of the group as they rushed to the Red Sea (which did not obligingly part). But the information gathered was crucial in helping the IDF enter Eilat (Umm Rashrash) four years later. IN 1994, I had made a far more comfortable trip to cover the visit by the Dalai Lama, who was the guest of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Early one morning, we hiked up the mountains to hear the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader deliver an address on the ever-relevant if cliched theme of the need for peace and harmony with nature. "There is hardly a sign of a border from here," exclaimed the robe-clad figure, standing atop 700-meter Mount Yoash, from which Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia can be seen. "Also when you look down from the sky you can't see borders. From this I conclude that borders are a mental creation - sometimes troublesome, but in the mind. Borders are not important - although I, of course, am concerned about the border with China." His words echoed in my mind at a time when the relationship between Tibet and China is again so strained it occasionally manages to knock the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the headlines. Looking down during the short flight, I didn't see borders either. I couldn't help noticing how the Tel Aviv metropolis almost runs into the Greater Jerusalem area in what seems from the air one continual urban strip. And I almost missed the ever-shrinking Dead Sea, now a series of pools, literally evaporating into thin air. ENVIRONMENTAL issues and borders have been a constant theme during my previous journeys down South. Indeed, in July 1994, water was the toughest topic discussed during the bilateral talks between Jordan and Israel that I covered at Ein Evrona, north of Eilat, when peace broke out between the two countries. During the closed meetings, I took the opportunity to head Eilatwards, later developing rolls of film (remember them?) which included photo-opportunity handshakes from the peace talks and touristic shots from the Underwater Observatory. Last week, I returned to the Coral World tourist site and found the old attractions - the glass-bottomed boat and observatory - had been added to and improved. The movie about saving the whale-shark, whose special effects include moving seats, proved a particular hit with my son. Since the Arthur Rubinstein events provided much of our leisure activities - and I'm not complaining - we did not get to see many of the new features that Eilat boasts: the IMAX theater, the Kings City biblical theme park or the old favorites: the birdwatching center and the dolphin reef. And visiting Eilat without hiking in the rocky hills left me with a long to-do list for next time. Flicking through the local paper as my son enjoyed the delights of the hotel pool - part of which is designed as an artificial beach surrounded by trees - I read the cover story on preparing for the Pessah tourism season. We were guests of Isrotel's Royal Garden Hotel, a complex of suites so well-equipped that our kitchenette included a dishwasher even though breakfast and supper were provided. Mealtimes, in fact, proved fascinating. Many Sudanese refugees, employed by the Isrotel chain as a matter of principle, served their shifts alongside Ethiopian and Russian-speaking immigrants. One striking Sudanese worker chatted in Arabic with an Israeli-Arab family. There were also many French visitors - and, I was told, a large French immigrant population moving into the town. Chance conversations showed that visitors and local residents had different concerns, as if we are all caught in our own bubbles which float around us no matter where we go. The captain of a tour boat assured me the country's No. 1 problem is Beduin encroachment in the Negev, followed by the clash between commercial interests and environmental concerns. Tel Avivians told me we just need to make peace with the Palestinians and all the country's problems will be solved (except for the lack of parking spaces in the Big Orange). Jerusalemites worried out loud about the security situation (and affordable housing). Jewish tourists decried anti-Semitism; non-Jews spoke of increasing youth alienation and violence. Somehow, however, we all managed to relax and enjoy ourselves, leading me to think that perhaps one of the country's major problems is that we no longer meet people outside our own circle of like-minded friends and neighbors. In many ways, Eilat's isolation and the transient nature of its tourists makes it seem as if it could be a resort anywhere. But Eilat is very much part of Israel - and not just because it is trying to deal with everything from the water shortage to the refugee and security problems. The city was full of Purim activities the weekend I was there. And only in Israel can you ask the hotel reception desk where to light Shabbat candles and receive the answer: "Down the corridor, next to the synagogue." No wonder the city is a Pessah favorite: Who wouldn't want to come out of the Red Sea and relax in a air-conditioned hotel to celebrate the Exodus?