S.F. supervisor takes wild ride through Holy Land

On a recent trip to Israel, San Francisco Supervisor Alicia Becerril witnessed a telling testimonial on Israeli-Palestinian relations. She also experienced a gamut of emotions, from fear and apprehension to cautious optimism.

And that was just during a cab ride.

According to Becerril, the American Jewish Committee, which sponsored the tour, wanted the delegates to ride in unmarked taxis for security reasons.

Becerril was surprised that the Palestinian driver had been unemployed for the past five years.

"What were you doing?" Becerril asked.

"I was in prison," the driver responded.

After a few minutes of silence, one of the other passengers asked what the driver was imprisoned for. The driver mumbled a response.

The mayor of a city in Minnesota laughed. "Did he say for being a bum?" she asked.

"No," Becerril told her. "He said he was in prison for building a bomb."

The rest of the cab ride was pretty quiet, Becerril recalled.

The paradox of an ex-con escorting tourists as a safety precaution didn't elude the supervisor. And yet, somehow, she said, it made sense.

"The majority of people in Israel have to get along by necessity. There's a kind of resignation to the peace process on both sides.

"I wouldn't say people are ecstatic about the peace process," Becerril said, "but there is a sense of quiet inevitability. I think that Middle East peace is a lot harder to accomplish than most people realize.

"You can't just undo centuries of hatred in a few years. It's going to take quite awhile."

At the same time Becerril was impressed by Israel's rapid technological ascent.

"Tel Aviv really is the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. It's influence is felt worldwide, which is pretty amazing considering how young a country it is."

Becerril, who visited the region in October, was also surprised by Palestinian economic advances. "There's really a huge influx of Western money being poured into Bethlehem," she said. "It's got Western hotel chains, Western restaurants and other developments.

"I think that economic factors are spurring on Palestinian participation in the peace accords. They're really gearing up for the millennium and don't want to jeopardize tourism."

The divergent forces in Israeli politics didn't faze the neophyte supervisor — she's had her mettle tested in a city known for its special-interest groups. But she was surprised by the political acumen of the Israeli populace.

"Israeli people are remarkably well-informed, even if they have drastically different viewpoints. But it's not as if you have a choice if you live over there. With so much happening, it's hard to remain neutral."

While the supervisor noted the spectrum of opinions dominating the political landscape, she also mentioned the uniqueness of the country itself.

"I can't think of any other country like Israel. No other country is so devoted to maintaining a homeland for people with a certain heritage."

Becerril was amazed at the Israeli government's staunch support for emigres. "If you're Jewish, no matter where you're from, or how little money you have, the Israeli government will provide for you.

"Their social infrastructure is really incredible. They provide new immigrants with stipends, affordable housing and university tuitions. It's such a drastically different approach than we take here in the States. Consequently, even though unemployment exists, you see very little homelessness."

In fact, the apparent paucity of homelessness prompted a discussion among the delegates. Becerril was less than impressed by one visiting politician's innovative take on the problem.

"He told me that in Cleveland, they buy all the homeless people one-way tickets to San Francisco."