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Amid turmoil, Wieseltier sees clear path in Middle East

by Tom Tugend

February 16, 2011 | 11:47 am

Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier

You have to sympathize with public speakers asked to deliver carefully prepared lectures on the situation in the Middle East, where events have a habit of overtaking incisive scholarly analyses.

So it befell Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, prolific writer and all-around public intellectual, who was the speaker at the ninth annual Daniel Pearl Lecture at UCLA last week.

Pearl, of course, was the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in 2002 by Muslim extremists in Pakistan. The lectures in his name were initiated by his parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, and always draw a large, well-informed crowd.

Last year, Christopher Hitchens was the speaker, and before him the likes of Anderson Cooper, Thomas Friedman, Daniel Schorr, Bernard-Henri Levy and … uh … Larry King.

Wieseltier said he had his lecture down pat, based on the certainty that “nothing had changed in the Middle East for 60 years,” when, wouldn’t you know, the mass protests in Cairo triggered drastic changes.

When the speaker took the podium, Hosni Mubarak had just announced that he would not give up the Egyptian presidency, so Wieseltier changed his talk to criticize President Barack Obama’s lack of support for the democratic struggle of the Egyptian people, and he speculated about possible bloodshed ahead.

But again the world started spinning in overdrive, and by the morning after the lecture, Mubarak had decided to vacate the presidential palace after all.

Tiptoeing through the thicket of Middle East politics and Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. policies, Wieseltier generally hewed to a middle-of-the-road position, critical of both the left and the right.

In his talk, subtitled “The Defeat of Reason in the Middle East,” and during a Q-and-A session that followed, Wieseltier made such points as:

• A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through partition has been obvious since the British mandate’s Peel report in 1937. “Everyone knows how to reach peace but won’t go there,” Wieseltier said.

• Regardless of ideologies and historical claims, when a people regard themselves as a nation, be they Jewish or Palestinian, they must be regarded as a nation.

• There has been remarkable development on the West Bank, where Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a technocrat, has been creating the infrastructure of a future state, copying the Jewish model before 1948.

• The greatest danger facing Israel is the delegitimization of the two-state solution in favor of a single state for Arabs and Jews, which would result in the erasure of Israel.

• Israel’s greatest blunder was the establishment of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. In the future, if Israeli soldiers have to shoot settlers to assert the state’s sovereignty, “I would not be terribly worried,” he said.

• President Obama has been a disappointment. He believes in his “magical powers,” has dropped human rights as part of U.S. foreign policy and has failed to support Iranian opposition groups.

• Every sphere of Israeli life, especially the economic one, works beautifully, except politics, which are in free-fall and suffer from an unprecedented lack of leadership.

After the two-hour talk and Q-and-A session, the dialogue resumed after dinner at the UCLA Hillel Center. The indefatigable Wieseltier appeared ready to go on until midnight, had not Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller stepped in at 10 p.m. to call it a day.

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