The Right Coast

March 04, 2004
Council Of Trent, Part I
Arsenic And Soft Soap

By Maimon Schwarzschild

This RightCoaster is just back from a three-day conference in Trento, in the Italian Alps, on "international law, peace, and human rights". I gave a short paper whose point was that international law, peace, and human rights are often in mutual conflict: in fact they usually are whenever times are interesting. Scepticism like mine was, to put it mildly, not otherwise the theme of the conference.

The conference was mostly organized by Israeli academics, and several Palestinians and Arabs participated, so the most interesting bits of the conference (apart from my pathbreaking paper, of course) were about the middle east and the prospects for peace there -- "vel non", as we lawyers say: i.e. "or not".

The conferees (your RightCoaster apart) came in three flavours: Europeans, Israelis, and Arabs. The European academics were evidently believers in a "culture of peace", the subtitle of the conference; although exactly what that phrase means remained nebulous to me, despite many words on the subject. The Israelis apparently wanted to be believers too: they were certainly for peace, and generally seemed eager to please, although most of them were unwilling to roll over completely when it came to specifics about the middle east.

The Arabs, though, were the most interesting to watch and listen to. Several had hair-trigger tempers, and there was a general air of complete inflexibility about Israel. In fact, their theme was to insist on a Palestinian "right of return" to Israel, an idea which almost all Israelis think would amount to the abolition of Israel. It should be emphasized that these were Arabs and Palestinians who were willing to meet and sit in a room with Israelis, which makes them unusual, even courageous, in the Arab world. They are, as it were, the Arab "peace movement". But their interest in, say, a "two state solution" -- i.e. a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza living side by side with Israel in its original 1948-to-1967 borders -- seemed practically nil. The "Palestine" issue for them, now as in 1948, is about Israel's occupation of any part of Palestine whatsoever: i.e. Haifa and Tel Aviv at least as much as the West Bank or Gaza.

It all suggests that a "culture of peace" will not be forthcoming anytime soon in the middle east. To which, sadly, you will probably say: no need to go half way round the world to the Italian Alps to discover that.