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Everything's Up-to-Date in Tel Aviv, the Worldly City

Better ties with Arab nations have yielded a peace dividend: a modern, booming economy ready to trade with neighbors and the world

Behind the expansive desk of chief planner Baruch Yoscovitz is an even more expansive aerial map of Tel Aviv, a city fast becoming the hub of a Middle Eastern city-state.

"We conceive of the city as the center of the country and ... as a major center of the whole Middle East," says Mr. Yoscovitz, director of urban planning for the municipality of Tel Aviv.

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Metropolitan Tel Aviv - which stretches to the towns of Netanya to the north and Ashdod in the south and about 20 miles inland to the border with the West Bank - accounts for nearly half of Israel's population of 5.6 million and for nearly half of its business and industrial activity.

With its fancy restaurants, thriving night life, and modern shopping malls, Tel Aviv represents the face of a rapidly changing Israel as it moves closer in style and habits to the cities of the United States.

Yoscovitz is anticipating phenomenal growth in the next 10 to 15 years in Tel Aviv and is busily preparing for massive expansion in an already congested city of some 360,000 people.

"We are anticipating 50,000 new dwelling units, the creation of 120,000 new jobs, and the doubling of current office space in the central business district," in the next decade, Yoscovitz says.

It is a sign of the times that half of a massive military complex of the Israeli Defense Force in the downtown areas is being evacuated to make way for a major new office complex to house international corporations.

Also planned is a huge, high-tech complex on the outskirts of the city and a sophisticated metropolitan underground rail service.

"The integrated transport system, which will include existing bus and rail services, is intended to serve 1 million passengers and will come on line in phases beginning about five years from now," Yoscovitz says.

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"An integrated system will enable us to extend the boundaries of the city. It is a major jump forward that will improve the quality of life and the quality of the environment, and it will get many cars off the road," he says.

Further development of the central business district is essential to control the urban sprawl that has developed in the center of Israel, he says.

"To make sense economically you have to concentrate development ... [into] more dense urban centers and more open spaces," Yoscovitz says. "We want to create a round-the-clock city ... having a good time with plenty of entertainment ... and not a deserted city."

Tel Aviv, only an hour from Jerusalem by car, is a thousand years removed in time from the religious Zionists who still dream of a religious Jewish state and define Judaism in terms of adherence to religious dogma.

It is also far removed from the socialist egalitarian dream of the Zionist founding fathers. Here, free-market consumerism has taken hold aggressively. The signs of Americanization are on every street corner - Burger King, MacDonald's, and Pizza Hut.

In the mushrooming worlds of finance, commerce, and advertising, salaries have skyrocketed in the past four years. Sports cars, designer jeeps, and the latest fashions bear testimony to how far Israel has moved since the government began to open up the economy in the mid-1980s.

Some 700,000 immigrants from the ex-Soviet states, including Russia, over the past seven years have made a major difference in stimulating the economy and providing a huge new supply of skilled and professional workers.

As they develop a computer-driven, high-tech society, Israelis appear to be gaining an insatiable appetite for new gadgets, having already established themselves as among the top per-capita consumers of home computers and cellular phones in the world.

Cable television is in more than 70 percent of households. TV commercials, which only began airing here three years ago, are now regarded as a normal part of viewing fare.

"There has been a massive change in Israeli consumer patterns of popular music over the past five years," says Natalie Davis, a buyer of foreign rock music for Helicon Records, an Israeli recording company licensed to sell Britain's Polygram and Virgin labels.

"Today Israeli tastes are completely up to date due to the introduction of MTV, which has a massive following," Ms. Davis says.

"Israelis always wanted to be like the rest of the world ... particularly like America," she continues.

But Alon Liel, director of the new National Planning Authority in the prime minister's office and former director general of the defunct Economy and Planning Ministry, insists that the changes taking place in Israel run far deeper than economic trends or the advent of the global village.

He mentions the 1987 uprising by Palestinians, known as the intifadah, along with the economic deregulation policies begun in 1985.

"The fact that we lost a war against a people who did not have an army [the Palestinians] shattered the invincibility of the Israeli Army," Mr. Liel says.

The growing impotence of the military was again demonstrated in the 1991 Gulf war, when the United States forbade it to use its sophisticated weaponry against Iraq or otherwise take part in the war.

"Israelis began to realize that the military might of the Army did not guarantee personal security," he says.

LIEL says that the desire for peace with Arab neighbors has had the upper hand over the military for the past four years.

"In the past decade, there has been an ideological upheaval," he says. "Israelis are sick and tired of war," he says.

Israel has begun trading with countries in Asia. It has established diplomatic relations with 160 countries compared with 40 about 25 years ago.

"We are not isolated any more. We are not under siege and are less aggressive. So people feel different," Liel says.

"In the past five years, the Israeli economy is doing very well, and the country is far more linked to the world and more dependent on it," he says.

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