Four Days in Seville

Avi Shlaim

Published in Spanish in El Pais, 9 September 2004

Of the countless symposia on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I have attended in the last 33 years, the one convened by Daniel Barenboim in Seville was by far the most stimulating, constructive, and encouraging. The symposium proceeded alongside the rehearsals of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra that Barenboim created in 1999 with his friend Edward Said, the Palestinian academic and critic, who died last September. The orchestra was Said’s proudest achievement. It is made up of young Israeli and Arab musicians who meet every summer for intensive rehearsals and a concert tour. The reunion this year was tinged with sadness as it was for an Edward Said memorial concert.

Participants in the symposium included some militantly moderate Israelis and Palestinians, Felipe Gonzalez, the former Socialist prime minister of Spain, and members of Edward Said’s family. Mariam explained that her late husband devoted to this project a large part of his life both because of his commitment to the Palestinian cause and because of his belief in the power of music to break down national barriers. Wadie added that his father got involved in this workshop because of the unique talent of Daniel Barenboim and because it offered an opportunity to do something concrete and constructive involving the two sides. Najla recalled that her father always used to tell her that he and his generation are too deeply enmeshed in the history of this tragic conflict and that the only hope of change lay with the young people of her generation.

Culture is a huge resource for power and Barenboim and Said used this resource towards a positive end: peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Said described the Palestinians in a memorable phrase as the victims of victims. The Palestinians, he emphasised, have to understand the impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish psyche, and especially the obsession with security, if they are to make sense of Israel’s attitude towards them. The Israelis, on the other hand, have to acknowledge that the establishment of their state in 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. What Said wanted was not to draw a line over the past but to gain a broader understanding of the roots of this conflict, to adopt a contrapuntal approach to their parallel histories, as he liked to put it. This was a consistent thread in Said’s writing from The Question of Palestine to his last article. Said himself combined great humanity with a strong sense of dignity. Cooperation between the two warring tribes in Palestine was his ultimate goal but not at the expense of the dignity of his own people. This stress on the need for mutual respect was an important part of his legacy.  

The discussions that preceded the drafting of a declaration in Seville ranged far and wide but there was complete consensus on one point: the interdependence between the two parties to the conflict. Like it or not, Israelis and Palestinians are simply fated to live together cheek by jowl on the same small piece of land. It follows that what is good for one side is good for the other. All previous efforts to solve this conflict failed because they treated it as a zero-sum game whereby a gain by one side is necessarily at the expense of the other side. Our aim was to move from a zero-sum game to a positive-sum game in which both sides simultaneously reduce their costs and enhance their benefits. The ideas we put forward are not directed against anyone; they are designed to help the parties break out of the cycle of violence, bloodshed, and mutual destruction. We are in the construction business, not in the destruction business. Our purpose was not to propose new solutions but to offer a new definition of the old problem. Together we worked to create a new narrative of one of the most bitter and protracted conflicts of modern times.

It was noted at the outset that while the destinies of the two parties are inextricably linked, the imbalance in their power could hardly be more pronounced. Israel is a sovereign state and a military superpower whereas the Palestinians are a weak and vulnerable community still at the stage of struggling for statehood. This enormous imbalance of power is ultimately injurious to both peoples. It permitted the crushing of Palestinian institutions, the abuse of human rights, and a relentless assault on their collective identity. On the Israeli side, the occupation brings no security, undermines the democratic foundations, and tarnish the country’s image abroad. As Karl Marx observed, a people that oppress another cannot itself remain free. Real peace between Israel and the Palestinians can only be based on freedom and democracy on both sides and on a relationship between equals.

Given the asymmetry of power between the two sides, a voluntary agreement between them is unattainable. A third party is needed to exert pressure and to offer incentives for compromise. America as the sole surviving superpower is the obvious party to play this part but its record does not inspire confidence. In the first place, the Palestinians do not view America as an honest broker because of its strong bias in favour of Israel. Since the attack on the twin towers on 9/11, America has tilted even further towards Israel. The Bush administration seems to accept Ariel Sharon’s preposterous argument that the war he is waging against the Palestinian people is part of America’s global war on terror. True, President Bush joined with his allies in the Quartet in launching the Roadmap that envisaged an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005. But there was no real commitment and no follow-up. Bush compounded the problem by endorsing Sharon’s plan for unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the de facto annexation of large chunks of the West Bank. This is not a contribution to the Roadmap but the antithesis of a negotiated settlement.

It was against this background that all the participants in the symposium, led by Barenboim and Gonzalez, joined in a passionate plea for a more active European role in settling the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. Europe has the moral duty, the direct interest, and the material capability to contribute to the resolution of this conflict. The part that the European powers played in bringing about the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine imposes on them the moral duty to do everything in their power to bring about a just and equitable solution. But this is not simply a question of morality. Europe is home to a significant number of Jews and a more substantial number of Muslims. The festering conflict in the Middle East is feeding hatred, intolerance, and anti-Semitism in Europe. If Europe does not go to the Middle East to tackle the problem at its roots, the repercussions of the conflict will be felt ever more strongly in Europe. Finally, European Union is the principal provider to foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s largest trading partner. It is thus well-placed to bring its influence to bear on the diplomatic front.

The sound of classical European music provided the most exhilarating backdrop for to the discussions of the symposium. Raised in enmity, the exceptionally talented young men and women set an example by their devotion to the demands of their common craft. Together they play with wonderful energy and unanimity in an orchestra that is larger than life. When looking at the orchestra, it is utterly impossible to tell the Israelis from the Arabs or Palestinians. Indeed, the workshop is a brilliantly successful experiment in breaking down national stereotypes and in artistic collaboration across the battle-lines.

Neither the Israelis nor the Arabs need the other to put on an impressive performance. But the collaborative and cosmopolitan character of the project enhances the quality of their music. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is thus a beacon of hope on the dismal political landscape of the Middle East. The challenge lies in translating this imaginative artistic concept into the realm of politics. No one under-estimated the magnitude of the challenge, and yet there was a palpable sense of optimism in Seville. By the personal example he set, both in the workshop and in the symposium, Daniel Barenboim infected many of us with his confidence that the impossible is easier to achieve than the difficult.