Page last updated at 11:56 GMT, Monday, 17 December 2007

Jerusalem Diary: Monday 17 December

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem


You don't often hear Tony Blair disagree with current UK foreign policy - or US policy, for that matter - but he did, this week.

The new international Middle East envoy was in Bethlehem, as part of his efforts to build the Palestinian economy into the bedrock of a Palestinian state.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair's enjoys a level of security unavailable to most tourists
At a briefing held in the swank of the Intercontinental Hotel, Mr Blair talked repeatedly about how Bethlehem was "safe", along with other biblically rich towns on the West Bank.

It was so safe, indeed, that the former prime would be spending the night in the Intercontinental. Other tourists should follow his lead, he said.

It seemed churlish to point out to Mr Blair that he travelled with the sort of gun-laden, earpiece-wearing retinue unavailable to most tourists.

But I did ask him how his assertions sat with the travel advice from the British and American governments - which is, in essence: do not go to the Occupied Territories unless you really have to.

Mr Blair was plain: "I think it is time to reconsider the (travel) advice," he told me.

"There are real opportunities for people to come here and see what is a spectacular, extraordinary, historic place."

The Intercontinental certainly does not want for luxury. But it does want for guests.

It opened in 2000, just in time for tourist wipe-out known as the Second Intifada.

Suleiman Jacir may have been from a prominent Bethlehem family, but he also could easily pass for a Sephardic Chief Rabbi
It is a mystery how this multi-million dollar development has remained open.

One Palestinian friend at the five-star hotel told me that, out of season - in other words, any time other than Christmas - you can get a room for $40 (20).

The same friend pointed out to me the portrait, hanging in the lobby, of Suleiman Jacir, the man who built this early 20th century mansion.

Suleiman Jacir may have been from a prominent Bethlehem family, but he also could easily pass for a Sephardic Chief Rabbi.

My Palestinian friend did not blink: "We are all cousins, after all," he pointed out.


Once Tony Blair had left the room, I sprinted upstairs to a taxi, which took me to Jerusalem's major concert hall, where I had a ticket for the Israel Philharmonic.

Gustavo Dudamel
The audience listened attentively to Mahler's vast second symphony
I arrived 10 minutes after the concert was due to start, and the front-of-house staff sent me galloping through the back stage to collect my ticket and then find my seat.

As I careered through discarded instrument cases, I almost ran over a slight figure, dressed in black, who was walking across my path.

He smiled broadly, as I mumbled an apology. It was Gustavo Dudamel, the wunderkind Venezuelan conductor, en route to the stage.

He, the orchestra, the soloists and the choir duly produced a powerful performance of Mahler's vast second symphony, the Resurrection.

Almost as striking as the music was the behaviour of the audience. They were impressively young: a lot younger, it seemed, than the average European classical music audience.

They were also much more attentive, much less prone to the hacking coughs of bored European listeners.

And this is Israel, remember. Never mind the physical improbability of the Resurrection. Pack several hundred Israelis into a room and listen to the silence? Now that is a miracle.

Read previous diaries by Tim Franks:

Your comments:

The reason Mr Franks managed to get to the downbeat on time is because during the first ten minutes of the evening the General Secretary of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was giving an impassioned plea to the audience, urging them to speak out against the impending arts funding cuts that have been proposed by the present government. Despite the IPO's astounding number of subscribers, we artists in Israel are about to suffer a serious blow to our ability to deliver concerts of the calibre that Mr Franks was able to hear.
Miriam Hartman, Principal Viola, IPO, Tel Aviv, Israel

I really enjoy Tim Franks personal approach to our region, an excellent example of background colour reportage. And what a pleasure to read reporting uninfected by re-gurgitated political propaganda - a problem with many of BBC's reporters!
Meira, Israel

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