Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may well remember Peter Greenberg as the man who was able to do what so many of his opponents have failed to do over the years: put him out of commission. And all Greenberg needed was some Astroturf and some decent skills in goal.
Netanyahu’s 2012 injury — torn ligaments and tendons in his left leg from trying to score a goal on Greenberg while the two were playing soccer with Jewish and Arab youths in Jerusalem — garnered plenty of worldwide media coverage and occurred in the line of duty, as Greenberg’s host and tour guide for five days.
The result of this unusual travel arrangement can be seen on March 26 on WHYY-TV, when Israel: The Royal Tour airs. The show is the latest in a series of one-of-a-kind travelogues from Greenberg, a veteran investigative reporter who has taken his nose for news stories and applied it to the travel industry. In the process, he has become not only a best-selling author but also the producer and host of numerous travel-related programs on television, radio and the Internet.
He’s also become a top “get” for any news story with a travel angle. Sure enough, our phone interview was interrupted several times by producers at CBS News looking to get his input on the continuing mystery over the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. As befitting a conversation with someone who is in transit roughly 300 days a year while racking up something like 400,000 miles annually, Greenberg was talking while on Amtrak between New York and Washington, D.C., where he was scheduled to appear on numerous CBS newscasts about the ill-fated plane.
The 64-year-old New York native, who lives on Fire Island, estimates he has been to Israel at least 40 times since he first traveled there to cover the country for the University of Wisconsin student newspaper in the 1970s. Still, he says, between bringing a 40-person production crew and traveling with the head of state, nothing else compared to his journey there for The Royal Tour.
Although production on the show began in 2012, Greenberg says that the seeds for this presidential tour were actually sown back in 2001, when the first episode of The Royal Tour, featuring King Hussein showing Greenberg the best of Jordan, was broadcast. (Other episodes have featured the prime minister of New Zealand and the presidents of Mexico and Peru showing Greenberg around their respective countries.)
Immediately after the Jordan program aired, Greenberg says, “we received a call from Ariel Sharon’s people saying they wanted to do it.” But they changed their mind, he says, once he explained the parameters to the then-prime minister’s people — five full days of one-on-one access with Sharon, with Greenberg retaining full editorial control over the content.
Flash-forward a decade and to a mutual friend who set up a meeting between Greenberg and Netanyahu to iron out the details. At the meeting, Greenberg recalls, “I said, ‘You realize what I need from you,’ and Netanyahu said, ‘Yes, Israel needs this.’ ”
According to Greenberg, it simply came down to the economics of exposure. “Tourism is 10 percent of global GDP,” he explains. “That is not lost on world leaders. Take a look at Egypt — other than travel and tourism, there is nothing” else really driving the country’s economy. “Conversely, look at Myanmar: Their economy was in the dumps, they opened their doors to travel, and look at their economy now — there is some money coming in.”
Netanyahu was true to his word: For five days, six hours a day — with a 10-month pause to allow him to recuperate from his injury— the former Cheltenham resident took Greenberg around Israel by boat, helicopter, paddle-bike and more. Among the places the pair visited: greatest-hits sites like Masada, the Kotel and the Dead Sea, as well as lesser-known highlights like the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which Netanyahu refers to as “Israel’s MIT,” the prime minister’s residence and Rosh Hanikra.
Greenberg says that his time at Rosh Hanikra’s Mediterranean grottoes next to the Lebanese border were among the best moments of his trip, because he had never been there before and because of the response the visit elicited from Netanyahu. The prime minister told fascinating stories of his time stationed there as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, and also reminisced about working on the Rosh Hanikra kibbutz decades earlier. Greenberg relates that Netanyahu “used to pick bananas at the kibbutz. He hated it so much that he swore he would never eat another one!
There is no way to cover everything in an hourlong TV special, but Greenberg and his crew were able to get enough of the country’s nature onscreen that people thinking about traveling without the benefit of elected officials by their side will still get a feel for the experiences awaiting them. Netanyahu alluded to that sentiment in a speech he made at the world premiere of the program on March 4 in Los Angeles: “I hope that the true spirit of Israel, the true meaning of Israel and the true purpose of the state of Israel will come forth in this television show.”