Next Step : Israeli Sees Tourism as Peace Dividend in Mideast : Cabinet minister Uzi Baram wants joint ventures by Israelis and Arabs.


Israeli Tourism Minister Uzi Bara looked up from the lunch table with eyes as wide as his future vision of the profits that peace will reap.

First, he said, will come the Christian pilgrims--millions of them from the world over, flocking to the holy sites where Jesus was born, where he lived and died--the fruits of the recent peace between Israel and the Vatican after two millennia of estrangement.

Then, the Muslims will come, flocking to the rock where the Prophet Mohammed rose to heaven, filling Jerusalem’s gold-domed Al-Aqsa Mosque in a pilgrimage that, for decades, has been just a distant dream for most.


The minister can see it all, joint-venture resorts, sprawling spas, towering hotels and beach clubs--built, owned and run by Arabs and Jews together.

“Already there is one project in the works on the Dead Sea,” said Baram, who describes himself with pride as “one of the leaders of the dovish wing” of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Cabinet.

“But my idea is different. I am talking about an entire international tourism area run by Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians, with major hotel chains and five-star facilities. I was even thinking about a package tour--Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem--the holiest shrines of Islam.”

Such, it seems, are but a handful of the infinite prospects peace would bring to an ancient yet disputed land so long in conflict.

True, Baram conceded, his vision remains in the talking stage, as Palestinian and Israeli negotiators still appear at least several weeks away from a final agreement to begin Israel’s promised troop withdrawal and Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho. And, Baram is the first to admit, “So far, it is just thinking. We didn’t do much to make it concrete yet.”

But the minister is convinced that the march the Arabs and Jews have begun toward peace now is irreversible. And Baram is not alone in his vision. In fact, as their leaders continue to haggle out the toughest, last details of peace between Israelis and the Palestinians after decades of occupation, rebellion and death, Baram’s proposed Arab-Israeli resort on the Dead Sea is just one of many examples of concrete cooperation between Arabs and Jewsquietly taking shape at the grass-roots level in Jerusalem and throughout the occupied territories.


They are the positive images of a quietly emerging peace that have been lost amid the simmering scenes of hostility and violence as delays in the autonomy plan have fueled frustration and despair. They are the images of hope.

Last Sunday, for example, rehearsals began in the Al Kasabi Theater in East Jerusalem for a joint, Arab-Israeli production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Arab producer George Ibrahim said Romeo’s family of Montagues will be played by Jews from an Israeli theater company in West Jerusalem; Juliet’s Capulets will be portrayed by Arabs from Ibrahim’s East Jerusalem troupe.

“It was very deliberate,” Ibrahim said of his drama. “The play, after all, is about stopping hatred. We are saying with this play, ‘Stop the killing and bloodshed, and we will have peace.’

“For decades, we knew the Israelis only through the soldiers, the police and the guns. They knew us only through the intifada (Palestinian uprising), the stones and the anger. I think now it’s time to start with different aspects.”

Ibrahim, who worked on Israeli productions before the intifada began eight years ago, conceded that, in the disputed city of Jerusalem, politics is never far away. The undecided final venue for the play, which is scheduled to open in May, is a case in point. Ibrahim said he hopes he can stage it “somewhere in the open air” where Arabs and Jews can gather together.

“We have to let Arab and Jew work together,” the producer said. “Of course, we will have some problems, because each group will bring their culture with them. But we have to start somewhere, and I believe that through culture it is the best way to start.”


Per Erik Johansen could not agree more. He is the manager of a Norwegian rock band who spent last week auditioning Palestinian and Israeli rockers in East and West Jerusalem. His vision: a joint Palestinian-Israeli concert sponsored by the Norwegian government. The original plan of his government, which helped broker last September’s historic declaration of the principles for peace, was to stage the Woodstock-style festival in a newly autonomous Jericho. “We hoped to have the concert in the spring, but this may be difficult now,” Johansen said, adding that the prolonged political negotiations to establish that autonomy may force the organizers to hold the concert on neutral ground--in Norway.

It is in the higher-stakes realm of corporate joint ventures--projects such as Baram’s proposed Dead Sea resort--that cooperative efforts will prove most difficult. The Dead Sea resort is a prime illustration. Baram’s idea for the model project surfaced briefly late last month when Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the government’s chief negotiator, brought it up in Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in Davos, Switzerland.

“Mr. Peres called me and said, ‘A Palestinian will call you up’ to discuss the project,” Baram recalled over lunch. “So far, he didn’t call.”

At that point, though, Baram’s director general, Eli Gonen, interrupted to say how highly both Israelis and Palestinians view the potential for joint-venture tourism--financially, as well as symbolically--not merely in Jericho and Gaza but in the disputed city of Jerusalem and elsewhere.

“There have been several informal discussions and informal meetings between top officials of our ministry and representatives of Palestinians dealing with tourism,” Goren said. “We spoke about joint planning . . . and we decided to plan together the entire region--where to have five-star hotels, where to have three-star hotels, and so on.

“Formally, the next meeting of the joint Israeli-Palestinian economic committee in Paris, in fact, is going to be focused entirely on tourism. You see, we are sure this region will be flooded with tourists, when this problem between us will all be settled.”


Already, he explained, the Israeli government spends about $100 million a year to promote tourism and develop tourist sites in Israel and the occupied territories. Last year, it paid off. A record 2 million tourists--for the first time, half of them Christians--visited the holy lands and generated revenues of nearly $3 billion, according to tourism ministry figures.

Baram then described just how far his vision extends--far beyond the Palestinian autonomous zones to an era of peace between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors.

“I have a lot of ideas for joint tourism--opening the gate between Eilat and Aqaba (to link the beach resorts of Israel and Jordan), sending a lot of Israeli pilgrims to Petra (Jordan’s most famous ancient site),” he said.

Then Baram seemed to catch himself in midflight. He paused and reflected for a moment. “To be on the safe side, of course,” he said, “We have to wait for all that until we have a peace treaty with Syria.”

Future Tour? Israel’s tourism minister, Uzi Baram, envisions a package tour of Islam’s holy sites that would bridge the Israeli and Arab worlds. Baram also hopes to see the gate opened between Eilat and Aqaba, and Israelis visiting Jordan’s Petra.