Israel’s current political chaos often seems so extreme and incurable that about the only thing you can do is cut yourself off from the news and go commune with nature. Just as sunlight is the best disinfectant, a little fresh air and green spaces are a magical remedy that brings relief from the troubles of the hour. But in Israel, not only is the personal political, many other things – like a forest – are frequently political too. When we drove up to a forest that overlooks the Jordan Valley, attempting to find a little quiet away from all the endless and inconclusive commentary, we discovered some refreshing political wisdom – alongside a stunning view, marvelous cows and, of course, thoughts about escape.
The Eshkol Forest was originally the Menahemia Forest, which first began to be planted in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until the ‘60s that the Jewish National Fund began planting more abundantly throughout this forest, and a few years later the name was changed to the Eshkol Forest (though both names appear on websites and maps). It was named for Israel’s third prime minister, Levi Eshkol, who succeeded David Ben-Gurion after the latter had served for 13 years and 127 days (with a break of a year and a half in the middle).
During his tenure, Eshkol was considered drab and lacking in charisma, not the kind of person who could easily fill “the Old Man’s” big shoes.
From atop the Eshkol Overlook, you get an unusual view of one of Israel’s most biblical landscapes – the Jordan Valley. From up above, you can see communities that were established way back when, seemingly destined for failure, but which became successful points of light when the state was founded. The southern tips of Lake Kinneret come together before turning, once again, into the Jordan River, while at the eastern edge of the valley, the Gilead and Golan mountains await, marking where the Yarmouk River empties on its way to Naharayim, where it will join the Jordan River on the long journey south.
As your gaze drifts southward to the northern edge of the Jordan Valley, the magnificent power of this overlook really hits you. At the overlook, we happen to meet a local celebrity with a glorious past – Yossi Vardi, the former Jordan Valley Regional Council head (and father of Kan public television reporter Moav Vardi). Not objecting when we quietly sneak into his group, Vardi happily names all the communities below us, explains how the entire Jordan Estuary is set to become a national park soon, with a plan that will create organized access to the river and facilitate its preservation; and he also points out to us Poriya Hospital, just south of the city of Tiberias which can also be seen from the Eshkol Overlook.
Levi Eshkol’s motto
Despite the impressive view in shades of green and blue, the main event is actually to be found at the foot of the large stone in the center of the overlook. This is where you’ll find a black plaque detailing Levi Eshkol’s work, with this quote at the top: “I compromise and compromise until I get what I want.”
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This sentence, which says a lot about how Eshkol got to the top, as well as about how the Jordan Valley came to thrive and bloom, also contains a possible solution to the current political dilemma.
Eshkol also contended against a powerful, admired and almost superhuman prime minister, but managed, through his devotion to compromise, not only to be appointed to succeed him, but also to cancel the military administration over Israel’s Arabs, to stabilize Israel as a secular and liberal country, and to lead the country during one of its greatest military triumphs.
Perhaps on the way to a fifth election, today’s politicians ought to pass through the Eshkol Forest, gain some wisdom and learn to compromise and compromise and compromise.
A very quick drive from there takes you to Ha’elot Parking Lot, where you can begin a short, circular hike suitable for the least intrepid hikers too. The path winds among the trees and also offers glimpses of the valley, along with all the wonderful bonuses of a stroll in the woods – clean air, greenery wherever you look and physical activity that satisfies the soul too.
All along this pleasant, easy trail, brown cows saunter by, lazing about and mooing. And while they do leave overly fragrant piles of manure to watch out for, they supply the trail with lovely fauna. There is no need to approach them or scare them or sic the kids on them. This forest is theirs much more than ours, after all, so just step back and admire them.
If you still have the energy after the hike (which you can always skip if you choose, of course), the next destination is the Yavne’el Overlook. At half the altitude, you have less of a panoramic view of Lake Kinneret, but when you’re enjoying the view from a shaded area, there’s a different, cooler kind of charm to it. At the spot sits an abandoned trailer, which immediately calls to mind the movie “Into the Wild,” both because of its pastoral surroundings and because it practically invites you to contemplate a different way of living.
The closer you get to the abandoned trailer and the cozy-looking sitting and campfire area beside it, the louder the little voice in your head saying, “Really, why not live this way?” grows. And the tree house suspended above it, which seems to call to the kids to go wild there, gives the whole place a nice homey feel.
A little to the north, you can find a different Israel. Several souls bought a few acres of land from the nearby community of Yavne’el and are living there in temporary structures, without running water or electricity. They live opposite Lake Kinneret and in nature, in a different reality from the one that we – “the others” – live in. They did not compromise on what most of us have, and they wake up every morning to the dream that they made come true. It’s a tough and uncompromising path and isn’t for everyone. The rest of us will have to emulate Eshkol and compromise our way to the top.