Walt Mossberg

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Peace in the Mideast, With Great Cellphone Coverage

OK, so this isn’t my usual tech review or rant. As it is the holiday season, and I find myself in Israel, I thought I’d post a few optimistic words about Peace on Earth–real peace in our time, evidenced every day, among Muslims and Jews.

I came here to speak at a tech/business conference sponsored by the Israeli financial newspaper, Globes. And then my wife and I stayed for a week or so to be tourists–the first time we’ve been here since 1975. Anyone in the high-tech business knows that Israel is a beehive of digital and Web start-ups, and I met with some of them. But that wasn’t the most interesting experience I have had here. The most interesting experience came nearly a week later, when we simply strolled across the Israel-Jordan border (pictured below; click on the image to make it larger) to do some touring, and then strolled back that same evening. Every soldier and policeman and border official on both sides was polite, smiling and efficient. It was no more stressful or dangerous than going from the U.S. to Canada and back.

jordan.border.jpg

The last time we were here, these two countries were at war, and had been for decades. It would have been ludicrous to suggest you could hire a tour guide in Jordan through your hotel concierge in Tel Aviv, Israel, then walk across the border to meet him. But that’s just what we did. We flew from Tel Aviv to the southern Israeli resort of Eilat, which is a few miles from a similar Jordanian resort called Aqaba, and then just walked through a border crossing. We then spent the day deep in the Jordanian desert at the utterly spectacular ancient city of Petra, and returned to Israel that evening to catch a flight back to Tel Aviv. No muss, no fuss.

And it isn’t just Americans who can make this passage. Average Jordanians and Israelis do it, too. In fact, we went to Petra on the enthusiastic advice of a number of Israelis we met. This was all made possible by a peace treaty that has been in effect between Jordan and Israel since 1994.

On our way back to Israel, a two-hour drive through the gorgeous Jordanian desert and mountains, our Jordanian guide–whose family has lived near Petra for 12 generations–called a counterpart in Israel to meet us at the border crossing, pick us up, and take us to the airport. It was a normal, daily thing for him. In fact, he told us, the weekend before, he had invited an Israeli friend on a mountain hike in Jordan.

Now, I am not naive about peace in this region. For readers who don’t know, I spent years as a defense, foreign policy and national security reporter for The Wall Street Journal before becoming a tech columnist. I have been in many Arab capitals and covered the U.S. policy aspects of the 1991 Gulf War. I know the Middle East is mostly a murderous mess. In fact, the day before we had gone to Jordan we were in a town in Israel that had been hit by Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza and were only a few miles from where Israeli troops had killed some Palestinians inside Gaza. So I know that our border-crossing experience doesn’t mean everything is fine and dandy. I know that average people are suffering badly and unfairly on both sides, and that there are rigid people on both sides who aren’t anxious for peace.

I also know that relations between Israel and Jordan aren’t exactly the same as U.S.-Canadian relations. In fact, the border crossing we used (pictured below; click on the image to make it larger) was named for the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic for being too willing to make peace with the Arabs. And, on the Jordanian side, we encountered a large picture of the late King Hussein, whose own life was threatened many times by Arab fanatics who thought he was too soft on Israel. It was Rabin and Hussein who worked out the peace treaty between their two countries.

rabin.border.jpg

Still, it was exhilarating and amazing to take our little trip, and it proved to me that peace is possible and normalcy is possible under the right conditions.

Oh, and there was a tech aspect to all of this. In both countries, even in the middle of barely populated stretches of desert, my iPhone had perfect voice coverage from multiple carriers. How come AT&T can’t guarantee the same level of service on the same phone even in the middle of some major American cities?


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