Walk this way

For the price of a cappuccino, you can celebrate the Millennium by walking on the surface of the Sea of Galilee, just as Jesus did almost 2000 years ago. The idea was conceived in a vision on the road to Tel Aviv by an Israeli showbiz lawyer and former tank commander. Safety net and lifeguards will be provided
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Like many great visions before it, Ron's came to him on the road. "It hit me like lightning," he told me. "I was driving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It was night. I was alone in the car and suddenly I had it. Without any warning, it was there." And, he added: "It has been there ever since." We were sitting in the lounge of the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv. Ron Major, a showbusiness lawyer, glanced round the bar. "At first," he said, "I was worried to tell anybody about it in case they thought I was a lunatic." The next morning, he recalled, he found himself strangely drawn to the local reference library. "I felt as if I was being led," he said, "by some great power I could not explain." If his main emotions - passionate expectation, combined with a fear of ridicule - are similar to those which might have gripped other pioneers such as Marconi or Edison, it is not yet acknowledged that his legacy to humanity will be quite so widely acclaimed as wireless telegraphy or the lightbulb.

The idea that struck Ron on Highway One was to build a submerged hydraulic platform in the Sea of Galilee which, from August, will allow visitors to walk on the water, in the footsteps of Jesus, for about 10 shekels (roughly pounds 1.50) a time.

The device, which consists of a 100-metre walkway a few inches under the water, will be sited at Capernaum, the site of Christ's original, unassisted excursion almost 2,000 years ago. It is one of the Millennium schemes which has had planning approval from the Israeli authorities, whose preparations for the millions of extra visitors expected in 2000 are felt by many in the country to have been confused, late, and inadequate. Major expects his "Walk on the Water Experience" will be able to carry 50 tourists at once. Actually, Ron, a 44-year-old Israeli whose law degree is from Leeds University, isn't too keen on the term "tourist": he prefers to describe his future clients as pilgrims.

"I want each pilgrim to feel that we are treating the whole idea very seriously," he explained. "This is not a joke. This is not Disney World."

Ron Major is best known here as the manager of some leading Israeli pop stars. A father of four and a former Israeli tank commander, he has retained the army haircut which, from certain angles, gives him the look of a young Uncle Fester.

An articulate, well-defended man, Major became strangely unsure of himself when I asked him why he was building the Walk on the Water.

Profit, he insisted, was never his motive. So was he religious? "I don't go to synagogue," he said. "I don't have any logical explanation for what I am doing."

Major had brought along plans for the platform - a thick carpet of perspex, invisible to the walker, set on a metal frame supported by pistons which can be adjusted according to water level.

Along the submerged catwalk Ron has provided a safety-net, which resembles a massive, sausage-shaped snooker pocket, to catch any pilgrims who - overcome by zeal, old age or a long lunch - fall off. Lifeguards will empty the nets of customers who have come to grief.

I arranged to meet Major a couple of days later, near his proposed site in Capernaum. It wasn't too hard to spot him there: most of the visitors to Galilee are devout people of limited means, travelling with coach parties. As a consequence, you do tend to notice a pilgrim who arrives in a chauffeur-driven, 12-seater, air-conditioned, executive people-carrier, and wearing shades.

We walked down to the site on the rocky shore of the Sea of Galilee, where work is due to start next month. Major cut a surreal figure on the deserted beach, in the pinstripe suit whose jacket he declined to remove even for a photograph. The sun was beating down on his office clothes; a few feet away from his heavy black brogues, a huge, dead catfish, jammed into the centre of a discarded car tyre by some malevolent fisherman, bobbed around at the water's edge like some hideous omen.

"Ah, my friend," Ron remarked to the fish, "you are beginning to stink." The Sea of Galilee is actually a freshwater lake, 14 miles long by three across, a couple of hours' drive north of Tel Aviv. The shores of the sea are, by European standards, gloriously undeveloped. Not for long: the Israeli government is about to build a coach terminal and jetty at Capernaum, with parking for 50 coaches, which will be only about 100 yards from Major's attraction.

Persistent questioning revealed him to be no clearer than before about the precise funding of his project. The overwhelming majority of the funds, Major said, will come from the government. The more I listened, I told him, the more I was convinced that now was the time for me to motor down to Cana and open my own "Water Into Wine" experience, where pilgrims would pay pounds 2 so that they could see their glass of Perrier magically transformed into Lambrusco.

"Your thing," said Ron, "is just a little bit too much. Your idea," he went on, "is just cheap." Was it blasphemous?

"Yes," he said.

As we left the Sea of Galilee, Major pointed out a nearby building site. "A hotel," he said. "Five hundred dollars a night." The project is one of many being frantically completed around the country. In 1998, Israel attracted 2.1 million tourists. Just how many more will come for the Millennium seems to be anyone's guess.

The official estimate is four million: a figure which neatly coincides with the number the tourist ministry believes Israel can cope with. But if the Pope comes in March or April 2000 - as he has determined to do, health permitting - then, according to the Vatican Travel Agency, Israel should brace itself for anything up to an extra four million pilgrims.

Not everybody is certain to welcome these guests with Ron Major's admirable financial disinterest. A gift shop further down the lake sells empty plastic bottles, in the shape of Christ, for pounds 1.50. Pilgrims can also purchase Mary Magdalene eau de toilette. At nearby Kursi, you can pay $10 to have a Millennium candle lit in your name: a service also available over the Internet. The money goes to the Jubillennium Organisation, a commercial outfit which will donate proceeds to charity and has prepared everything from car stickers to carpets, adorned with the face of the Redeemer.

The Israelis have set aside $400m to pay for new roads, hotels and improvements to Tel Aviv airport. But even now, just weeks before hotels would expect firm block-bookings to start coming in, there is a surprising vagueness over what is actually going to take place in the Holy Land at the Millennium. The official tourist brochure for 2000 claims to be the culmination of "years of efforts", before warning readers that it contains only a very tentative list of events, including the International Bike Race up Mount Sodom and the Israeli Cowboy festival. The most ambitious events, such as the proposed concert by the Three Tenors, have been arranged by towns which are under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Everywhere in Israel planning law is complicated, to put it mildly, by political tensions. Bethlehem, an unmissable destination for most Christian visitors, is controlled by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The town hopes to attract two million tourists in the year 2000. Even on a quiet day, however, Israeli road blocks can mean the 15-minute drive from Jerusalem to Jesus's birthplace can take up to two hours. In the hope of improving mutual understanding and co-ordination, Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen met earlier this month in Jerusalem to discuss plans for Bethlehem in the year 2000.

Politicians and tourist officials struggled to address the main areas of unease: the possible saturation of capacity at Tel Aviv airport, and the readiness of new hotel rooms. Even if the official forecast of four million were correct, said Shabtai Shai, director-general of the Israeli Tourist Board, only a fraction of visitors would be able to visit the two crucial Christian shrines: Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Holy Sepulchre, built on the site of the Crucifixion, can handle only a maximum of 750,000 visitors annually.

"Frankly," Shai admitted, "I don't see any solution."

So what was going to happen, I asked Haim Shapiro of the Jerusalem Post, if figures exceeded official expectations? "If there are, as they predicted, six million extra pilgrims," said Shapiro, "then you're going to have..." Mayhem? "Not automatically," he replied, "but it won't be pleasant.

"The full implications of 2000 for Christians didn't occur to all Jews here, especially to some in authority. We started planning late. If you compare the organisation for the Millennium here with Rome, we have done nothing at all."

What, I asked Shapiro, was the worst-case scenario? "The absolute nightmare," he replied, "and I haven't looked at the calendar to check this, would be if the Orthodox Easter and the Western Easter fell on the same day in 2000. Orthodox pilgrims paralyse the whole of Jerusalem at Easter, even without the Westerners."

A huge influx could have been excellent news for Ron Major, of course, had he been more willing to apply his commercial talents to his Capernaum venture. I called Ze'ev Margalit, an executive with the National Parks Authority, which will organise the Walk on the Water scheme, for more details.

"Ron Major's Walk on the Water is a private project," said Margalit. So what was the government's financial involvement? "None," he replied. What, in his view, were Ron's motives? Margalit laughed.

"Financial, of course."

"His aim is profit," said Shlomo Dolberg, head of the Financial Division of the Parks Authority. "The same as every entrepreneur. He will pay us a percentage."

"Really?" said Major, when I told him of the official's remarks. "That's very strange."

If you are thinking of walking on water next year, you might be well advised to time your visit carefully. As you might expect from Israel's other misfortune with the calendar, both the Orthodox and Western Easters do indeed fall on the same day in 2000: 23 April, St George's Day.

There are all kinds of reasons, of course, why the feared disruption may not materialise. There may be terrorist action or unrest on the West Bank. An economic downturn could deter secular visitors. The Pope may not be well enough to travel. If tourist interest does live up to expectations, Israel may need another miracle, this time of the kind that even Ron can't deliver.

Mail On Sunday/Review