Thursday, May 13, 2010

Travel Blog: Day Four in Israel -- Settlements, electric cars, shopping malls and children

Unfortunately I fell out of my diligent note-taking habit around day four, so my recollections of the last three days of the trip will be a little less detailed than the first three, as I'm going more on memory.

We left Jerusalem this morning though and headed west down the highway toward Tel Aviv. First, though, we made a detour into what is essentially a Jerusalem suburb to visit Har Adar, a growing commuter community and also a hilltop battle spot that was fought over both in the independence war and in 1967. And it was also the home of our Israeli guide for the week, Lior, and a rare example of a gated Israeli residential development.

One theme we heard a lot during the week, and it may have more do to with settlement expansion than any political motivations, is housing costs. The cost of living in Israel has become very high, particularly for young people and new families. Land is at a premium, particularly in Jerusalem, and that has driven housing prices very high throughout much of the country. Development began in Har Adar as a Jerusalem bedroom community some years ago, attracting young families with the prospect of higher quality of life at affordable prices near the city. It's proximity to the green line and Palestinian communities at first turned some people off, but the price was right and now the community is thriving, has expanded to the other side of the green line, and prices are now as high as elsewhere in the country. And those early movers have seen their investments increase substantially.

At the centre of the development is a mountain-top is a former British and later Syrian military position, that was hard-fought for during the independence and 1967 wars, housing a Syrian radar position when it was finally captured by Israeli forces in 1967. Today, in addition to a stylized look-out tower, bunkers are visible and a number of 1947-era tanks and military vehicles are on display.

We left Har Adar and continued toward Tel Aviv, stopping to visit a hospital in Holon that's home to the Save a Child's Heart project. The hospital itself was interesting. A little old-looking, but the only hospital I've seen with a mall, food court and McDonald's in the lobby. As well as a metal detector at the door, but that's standard in public places here.

Anyway, Save a Child's Heart is an Israeli not for profit organization that provides over 200 surgeries yearly to infants and children from underprivileged areas around the world needing cardiac care. Children are brought to Israel for surgery, some procedures are performed in their home countries, and medical staff also work to develop cardiac care capacity in developing countries.

While we were there we saw children from Iraq, from Africa, and from China who had been brought here thanks to the program, and the donations it receives, to get life-saving care. The program also regularly treats many children from Gaza and the West Bank, whose local doctors refer them for treatment and follow-up.

The doctors and staff we spoke to, all of whom volunteer their time to the program to keep the costs down and help as many children as possible, say the program has nothing to do with politics. They keep politics out of these doors. It's about helping children in need, period. And maybe, they said, if we just focus on doing the right thing, the rest will sort itself out. A noble and perhaps naive sentiment, but perhaps not a misplaced one. While we'd heard from other speakers that Palestinians seen co-operating with Israelis risked blow-back, it seemed parents didn't hesitate bringing their children here for treatment. That's because, to a parent, a child's life is way more important than politics. So, just perhaps programs like this, and just putting everything else aside to just do the right thing, is really the key to peace in this region.

Continuing into Tel Aviv, our next stop was at Project Better Place in Pi-Gillot. It's a Palo Alto, Calif.-based start-up developing and marketing the infrastructure necessary to support electric cars. It's founded and led by Israel's Shai Agassi, a name I recognized as a former senior executive and one-time heir apparent of software firm SAP AG, a company I regularly cover in my day-job and whose Sapphire user conference I'm attending next week in Orlando.

Better Place sees the Israeli market as ideally suited to test the electric car concept – it's a small, westernized, modern country, where driving anywhere in the country doesn't take too long at all. And since the major oil producing-countries aren't all big fans of Israel, to say the least, it's a country with a vested interest in lessening its petroleum dependance.

We got the marketing video, and were told Better Place is building charging stations in public places across the country. It's also building robot-controlled battery changing stations – a car drives in over a bay, a robot reaches up to swap the battery, and you're off and driving in minutes. That's the promise, anyways.

Beginning next year, they plan to begin selling subscription packages that include the car and maintenance, power, and a charging station at your home and one public place of your choice, such as your office. You simply tap your smart card on the charger, plug in, and you're good to go.

A few problems with all this I see. For one, they're not telling us the price yet. I wonder what the cost is for all that hydro? And secondly, for all their talk about going green, and the nice clips in the video of windmills and solar panels, the fact is such technologies can only provide a fraction of our power needs today. The majority of Israel's power-generation is coal-based – hardly green energy – and a massive electric car network would only require more and more coal to be mined and burned. So, not to say this isn't worth doing, and certaintly the declining supply of petroleum is another factor, but aren't we really just transferring the pollution from the tail-pipe to the power plant?

Anyways, putting all that aside it was time to test drive a prototype electric vehicle on Better Place's test track. A former fuel-burning Renault converted to electricity to test the concept and infrastructure, getting started was a little different. No engine to turn over to start, you just press the on button and then another button to but it into gear. After that, it was like any other car. It had a good amount of pep and acceleration, comparable to any other similar car. And while it wasn't loud, it wasn't the stereotypical silent stalker either – I could hear the engine purr as I accelerated.

So, it's an interesting concept and I certaintly wish them luck. I'll be interested in seeing their pricing model. For now though, while the concept may work well in a small country like Israel, I see some challenges applying it to Canada.

After they made me park the car, we headed into the city for lunch with two Canadian-born journalists now living, and blogging, in Israel – Lisa Goldman and Karin Kloosterman. Kloosterman runs Green Prophet, an environmental news site for the Middle East, while Goldman blogs and writes for a number of local and international media outlets on a number of topics, including the Lebanon War.

It was very interesting to hear the perspectives of fellow Canadians who are now living and working in the region on the topics we'd been hearing about during the week. In particular Goldman, who I'd place firmly on the left, I thought provided some fascinating and important counter-points to some of what we'd heard from Yossi Klein Halevi and Khaled Abu Toameh.

Before lunch though we visited Rabin Square, and the site where former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot and killed in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli radical opposed to the peace process. It's hard not wonder how history would have unfolded if not for that unfortunate event. And it's an important reminder that extremists lurk on all sides, and that on both sides there is certaintly no unanimity of opinion on the way forward.

We returned to Canadian soil briefly in the afternoon – or Canadian air, I suppose, since our Tel Aviv embassy is on an upper floor in an office tower. Our briefing and conversation with our ambassador to Israel, Jon Allen, was off the record so I can't share the details. I did, however, appreciate his frank thoughts on the issues in the region, and on Canada's evolving policy here.

After some time to relax, explore and hit the beach in Tel Aviv, we went for dinner with Shmuel Rosner, blogger and columnist at The restaurant was on the upper floor of a modern, newly-opened mall with all the usual Western chains – including the country's first H&M – which sparked an interesting conversation for one of our other dining companions, a Canadian now living and raising his family in Israel – with the Westrification of Israel, is the next-generation losing touch with the challenges and hardships faced by previous generations in founding, protecting and building this country?

It's an interesting question. We'd also heard during the week that the more and more of the younger generation are looking for, and finding, ways to avoid the country's mandatory army service. Spending only a few days in the country I'm not really qualified to comment on societal trends, but I submit that maybe it's a positive that the people now longer feel the need to defend their country's existence so resolutely – they take it as a matter of fact. As for the Westrification of the culture, certaintly that has its downsides. I can't help but think though that a few H&Ms in the West Bank and Gaza wouldn't be a bad thing.

We also had some interesting conversation with Rosner on his experiences living in the U.S. and covering Barrack Obama's campaign for the presidency as a journalist. Rosner shared the view of many Israelis we spoke to on Obama – that he's tilting the balance too much toward the Palestinians and that his approach to the Iranian threat is off-base. There's a disappointment here that Obama's desire to reach out to and repair America's relationship with the Arab world has meant a less full-throated support for Israel. I submitted that America having a better relationship with the Arab world would be a positive for Israel, and for peace, in the long-run. That contention was acknowledged, but I suspect it may be a little too long-term for some here.

Sadly, our time in Tel Aviv was very short. Tomorrow, we drive North to meet a female Arab sportscaster in Nazareth and took take a peek into Southern Lebanon from Misgav Am, ending the day at a beautiful resort in the Golan overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

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Saskboy said...

You may not need many or any additional coal plants to charge a vehicle fleet. The fleet will charge mostly over night, when power use may be low, yet coal plants have to stay fired up because they can't be shut down when demand goes down.

Steve V said...

I miss Lior. My friends, come, please ;)