The Face of a Nation

Everywhere in the world, the road from the airport to downtown says quite a lot about the place. The scenery, the buildings, the infrastructure and the billboards all reveal quite a lot about the city and the country to the visitor, and first impressions are very important: Is the place lively or boring, young or old-fashioned?

On the road from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan, for example, you can stop and look at the amazing skyline, and the enormous, colorful and crowded billboards more than hint at the frantic pace of life in the city.

The road to the center of Beijing is packed with modern interchanges, huge new buildings and advertising starring Chinese models. All of these inform us of the rapid development and the recent invasion of Western culture into the Communist country.

The road to Belgrade, the Serbian capital, is lined with modern signs that stand in stark contrast with the overcrowded buildings along the way, and hint at the battered city's efforts to modernize.

Until recently, the road from Ben-Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv also taught us something about Israel.

Arriving tourists who wound up on Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv could have learned a few important things about us: heavy traffic; anxious drivers; brand new buildings next to old, ugly ones; and an endless array of colorful and inviting billboards, even one particularly large one featuring the country's hottest models.

In other words: a nation under pressure, not well planned or particularly clean, but colorful and happy, with beautiful people.

About two weeks ago, the roadside scenery changed. At the order of the courts, and after the Supreme Court refused to intervene, it was decided that all the outdoor advertising along Ayalon would be removed within a few hours.

One of the reasons was the deleterious effect of the signs on traffic safety. None of those involved in the decision thought that it was necessary to prepare in advance for such a possibility, and the results showed: ugly, dark cloth coverings were draped on the billboards to hide them.

Since the law took effect, nothing has been done to improve things, and the view along the Ayalon freeway has been left ugly and dark

Even worse, last week the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee voted, under pressure from the advertisers, to approve a bill that would once again legalize the billboards along Ayalon. True, only after the bill passes its second and third readings in the Knesset will it be legal for advertisers to plaster the billboards alongside the road, and it will certainly take a few more months for a final vote. Until then at least, it is safe to assume, the situation will remain as it is today.

One can argue about how much billboards really affect traffic safety. Research and opinions on the matter are divided. But how the matter was handled here is a very good example of how decisions are made in Israel: with no prior thought, examination or preparation.

That is how entire neighborhoods in Netanya, Petah Tikva and Holon were built: without thinking in advance about the needed public facilities, such as schools. That is how decisions are made to build uneconomic train routes, such as the one to Carmiel - and then they are frozen. And that is how the decision was made to go to war in Lebanon.

From this point of view, it seems the hidden signs tell very well the accidental tourist about the Israeli story: hasty, without thought and sometimes not very pretty.