Benjamin Netanyahu, head of state and tour guide

By Shlomo Cesana/JNS.org

Down in the tunnels of the Western Wall, just before midnight, a young film-crew member working on Peter Greenberg’s travel show, “The Royal Tour,” turns to Benjamin Netanyahu and says, “That’s great, prime minister. Now let’s do it again.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at the Western Wall on January 22, 2013. Netanyahu's latest role at the Western Wall comes as a tour guide, as seen on Peter Greenberg’s travel show, “The Royal Tour,” which follows various heads of state as they serve as tour guides in their native countries. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90.

Cramped under the vaults, everyone begins to feel the air getting stuffy and drops of sweat begin to appear. Netanyahu, who has repeated the explanation about the enormous rock placed in the supporting wall of the Temple during the Herodian Era several times, is displaying endless patience. The people in the room may be asking themselves, “Why does Netanyahu need all this?” The answer is clear: he wants to send tidings from Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s speeches on international stages have showed that his relationship with the camera is very natural, but this challenge of describing the Western Wall, a site that time constantly changes, is more familiar to veteran tour guides than to heads of state. The challenge stems mainly from the fact that Jerusalem has always been inhabited. Throughout the generations, people have fought over it, attacked its residents, conquered it and destroyed its buildings. Yet Jerusalem was never abandoned, due to the religious traditions linked to it.

When tour guides present the foundations of the Temple Mount as seen through the Western Wall Tunnels project, which began after the Six Day War in 1967, it is difficult to understand why tourists are crouching under the vaults and in tunnels—essentially remnants of the Ayyubid Period—atop which the modern-day Muslim Quarter is located.

But Netanyahu’s task is even more difficult, since he is expected to communicate the same message in television-friendly language. Therefore, when he talks about Herod’s construction and about a rock that weighs 600 tons, he translates these concepts into practical terms, saying, “Take two jumbo jets full of passengers, okay? Now put them here. That is how much this rock weighs. And that is just one rock, in just one of the four supporting walls of the Temple Mount, when the renovations took place during the Herodian Era.”

Facing the Holy of Holies

With three cameras pointed at him, Netanyahu can’t escape from any angle. During his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu approved the digging of an exit from the tunnels in efforts to encourage safe, popular tourism. But then Yasser Arafat, then the president of the Palestinian Authority, seized the opportunity to launch a violent confrontation on the grounds that Israel was trying to destabilize the foundations of Al-Aqsa mosque. That is when Netanyahu coined the phrase “the rock of our existence.” During the current tour in the Western Wall Tunnels, he reiterates his argument from back then, explaining why the Temple Mount is so important to the Jews and why ever since the Jews were exiled, they always continued to pray in the direction of the Temple Mount (which Jews are not allowed to enter) and took solace in praying at the Western Wall.

Netanyahu is acting as Israel’s presenter. Without politics or slogans, he explains how the Temple was renovated by Herod, who expanded the grounds and erected the opulent Temple that was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. The prime minister then pulls a wooden model of the Temple from under the table and places it in the center. It is apparent that he is not forgetting for one minute who his audience is, and he makes the connection between the Bible (or Old Testament, as Christians call it) and the New Testament.

“Right here, on the very street where we are standing, which ended in a junction to the Temple Mount, it is very possible that Jesus once walked,” he says.

For hundreds of millions of viewers in America, it may be enough to see these remains with their own eyes, accompanied with a convincing explanation, to pick up and visit the Holy Land.

“This is the real thing,” Netanyahu concludes as he caresses the rocks of the wall at a point known as “facing the Holy on Holies”—the closest place on the Western Wall to where the Holy of Holies stood when the Temple was operational 2,00 years ago. “You have to touch the stones,” Netanyahu explains. “You have to come and feel this.”

‘A country of fun’

The Prime Minister’s Office has titled Netanyahu’s stint as a tour guide on Greenberg’s international television program (which has an average viewership of about 300 million) “Bishvil Israel,” translated in English as either “for Israel” or “in the path of Israel.” The government’s goal is to encourage tourism to Israel. Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, who is taking part in the project, has high hopes for the mega-production.

Greenberg, a journalist and producer, is considered an authority in the field. He is well known for his international travel programs, which air on PBS and CBS. One of his most prominent programs is “The Royal Tour,” which follows various heads of state as they serve as tour guides in their native countries. Greenberg, who arrived in Israel with a staff of 35, has already filmed many leaders, including the king of Jordan, the presidents of Mexico and Peru, the prime minister of New Zealand, and others.

Landau explains that this project carries great significance in terms of public diplomacy, in addition to the financial and tourism aspects. Countries where the program was filmed in the past subsequently enjoyed a spike in tourism. In 2012, Israel had a record year: 3,520,000 tourists visited the country. Most of the tourists came from the U.S., which is also where most of the Greenberg’s viewers reside. Therefore, the show could serve to bolster Israel’s relations with the U.S.

Beyond that, the Israeli Tourism Ministry is hoping that the program will help bring an additional 200,000 tourists to Israel, which translates into growth of more than a billion shekels in the course of a year. In 2012, tourism in Israel brought in 36 billion shekels.

The show began filming last June (in Rosh Hanikra, Haifa, Caesarea, and holy sites around Jerusalem), but production stopped when Netanyahu broke his leg during a soccer game. Filming resumed this summer, following Netanyahu to Tiberias, the Jordan Valley, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Masada, the Dead Sea and Eilat.

“This is a program that shows the real Israel—a different Israel,” Netanyahu explains. “The Israel that you don’t normally see when you are sitting in your living room watching television. People need to see that this is a country of fun.”

This story was first published by Israel Hayom, whose English-language content is distributed exclusively by JNS.org.

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Posted on July 14, 2013 and filed under Israel, Features.