"First Contact" and Other Israeli Fictions: Tourism, Globalization, and the Middle East Peace Process
In the summer of 1994, several days before the signing of the Washington Declaration that would end the official state of war between Israel and Jordan, one of Israel’s most popular daily newspapers documented the “first” Israeli visit to Petra, the Nabatean city in southern Jordan. A two-page spread, featured in the front section of Yedi'ot Aharonot and illustrated with photographs, recounted the clandestine voyage of two Israeli travelers who had crossed the border into Jordan illegally with their European passports. “I Got to the Red Rock!” the headline proclaimed. Dramatic, first-person prose recounted the travelers’ mounting anticipation as they neared Petra in a Jordanian taxi, their constant fear of discovery, and, at last, the thrill of arrival. “And then it happened. Suddenly, between the crevices of the giant stones, 100 meters from us, [we caught our] first glimpse of the red structures hewn in rock. Tears came to our eyes. . . . ‘Photograph me,’ we said to each other in the same breath” (Lior 1994).
Israeli voyages into the Arab world received extensive coverage in the mainstream Israeli media of the mid-1990s. The figure of the Israeli tourist, and the grammar of a tourist imagination, constituted crucial discursive tools by which popular newspapers represented the so-called Middle East peace process, and its effects, to mass reading publics. Stories about tourism were important vehicles of translation. While the intricacies of diplomacy and political economy could be difficult to convey in the popularized vocabularies of the press, stories about leisure travel were not. The figure of the tourist was highly intelligible, even banal in its intelligibility. Tales of the Jewish Israeli leisure traveler, traversing borders into neighboring states heretofore off-limits, were deployed to narrate the effects of regional reconfiguration. Through the image of the traveling tourist body, crossing borders made porous by “peace,” the press illustrated Israel’s new diplomatic and economic place within the Middle East. Through the highly recognizable figure of the tourist, newspaper readers contended with new maps and new meanings of the Israeli nation-state in an increasingly regionalized and globalized age.
Using the tourist as a lens, this essay examines the ways in which the Middle East peace process, and the shifting relations between Israel and the Arab world, were represented and managed within popular Israeli media of the mid-1990s.1 My investigation is framed by the tenure of the Rabin/Peres Labor-led administration (1992–96), the formative years of the Middle East peace process, which began in earnest with the Oslo accords of 1993, as the Israeli state negotiated a political settlement with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries. Through the Oslo process, the Labor administration hoped to build a regional economy and common market with Tel Aviv at its center—a political blueprint celebrated euphemistically as “the New Middle East.” For the Israeli business community, “peace” held economic promise on a far grander scale; analysts argued that diplomatic and economic agreements with the Palestinians and the Arab world, in accordance with liberalization within the nation-state, would enable Israel’s fuller integration into the global economy. For the Labor administration, “peace” was also designed as a security arrangement in which the Palestinian Authority would collaborate in the work of the Israeli occupation to ensure the safety and integrity of the Jewish state.
While the Oslo process failed to alter the regional balance of power, it had a profound effect on the “national order of things” within Israel (Malkki 1995: 70). As the state and private sector developed stronger diplomatic and economic ties with neighboring Arab states, and as territorial borders became flexible in new ways, cultural and ideological borders began to shift and come to crisis. At issue were a new set of questions and anxieties about Israeli identity in the era of “peace” and the place of a Jewish state within the Middle East. Tourism was at the center of these multiply shifting terrains. As a market, it was both product and progenitor of Israel’s integration into new regional and global economies; as a field of both representational and spatial practices, it was a crucial tool by which differently situated Israeli communities explored and contended with the meaning of Israeliness in the peacetime era.
This essay investigates the popular grammar of the peace process era by focusing on representations of tourism in Israel’s most widely consumed Hebrewlanguage daily newspapers, Yedi'ot Aharonot and Ma'ariv.2 I look at two narratives that were repeatedly deployed during this period. The first is a story of “first contact,” in which the Jewish Israeli tourist was cast as discoverer in/of the Arab world. Through a grammar of discovery, which reiterated the stock conventions and gestures of imperial travelogues, tales of discovery in the Arab world functioned to shore up the boundaries of the Israeli nation-state, to preserve the fiction of Israel as a discrete territorial and cultural unit at precisely the moment that borders were being traversed by new kinds of regional and global flows. The second was a less laudatory tale about incoming tourism from the Arab world. While the Jewish Israeli tourist was portrayed as a heroic traveler, freely traversing borders into Arab lands hitherto untouched by an Israeli presence (or so the press suggested), the Arab tourist seeking entry into Israel was the object of considerable anxiety. Through the menacing and often illegible figure of the Arab tourist, the press evoked and managed the threats posed by the permeable borders of the New Middle East and the incoming flows of Arab persons, cultures, and things that “peace” was beginning to deliver.
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Earlier versions of this article were presented to audiences at Stanford University, the University of Washington, and Amherst College. Many thanks to Ann Anagnost, Joel Beinin, Yael Ben-Zvi, Robert Blecher, Elliot Colla, Andrew Janiak, Kaylin Goldstein, Jake Kosek, Donald Moore, Andy Parker, Matthew Sparke, and Public Culture’s anonymous reviewers for a wealth of insightful readings and suggestions.
- I use the terms Middle East peace process, Oslo process, and peace process interchangeably to refer to the bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral negotiations conducted during the 1990s between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Arab states. My use of the word peace and the phrase New Middle East is not intended to endorse the political ideologies and processes that they denote, but aims to draw attention to the ways this rhetoric circulated in dominant Hebrew discourse. My use of scarequotes aims to place these terms “under erasure” in the Derridean sense. Save my reference to “peace,” to which vigilant attention is required, I will henceforth omit scare-quotes.
- The newspapers Yedi'ot Aharonot and Ma'ariv, both published in Tel Aviv, had daily circulations of 250,000 and 160,000 respectively during this period. My analysis also includes reference to the Hebrew dailies Ha’aretz and Davar Rishon; the regional and/or urban Hebrew weeklies Kol Ha3ir (Jerusalem) and Kol Hatzafon; and the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report, Israel’s primary English-language publications of this period.