Flat Earth

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Yell Aviv

PEACE in the Middle East, according to Tami Leibovitz, may depend on Israelis learning good manners. She runs a charm school near Tel Aviv, and has a clientele of aspiring politicians, Foreign Ministry officials and former army officers, all seeking to unlearn traditional Israeli behaviour - aggressive, loud and rude.

If you think I'm being offensive, this is what she told an American audience: "Israelis will cut in on your conversation and will often interrupt in the middle of a sentence. It is also quite common for an Israeli to complete your sentence for you. Israelis talk very loudly."

Mrs Leibovitz, who spends her time trying to convince Israelis that being polite does not necessarily make one a weakling or a dupe, told the Guardian that the Middle East could be saved by good manners: "We have to see that even Palestinians are human beings ... We don't know yet how to speak to other people and how to solve problems together. We have to learn that."

Judging by the reaction of Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when he was invited to Norway to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Oslo accords this week, peace remains some way off and Mrs Leibovitz still has work to do. Netanyahu, said his spokesman, was too busy. Besides, "there are more important things ..."

Someone yet to be selected would be sent, the spokesman went on, before adding: "I don't think the competition for that is too fierce." Rude or what?

Existential piles

RECENTLY we learned that the true love of Simone de Beauvoir's life was the American writer Nelson Algren, with whom she carried on despite her decades-long relationship with her fellow Existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. He knew about Algren, apparently, and did not like the affair. But he had to put up with it, since he demanded the freedom to have amours of his own.

Reading the transatlantic correspondence reminded me of a story told by my late aunt, who lived in Paris for many years and one day found herself sitting at the next table to Sartre and de Beauvoir in a cafe.

Thrilled, my aunt leant closer to hear what two of the greatest minds in France were talking about. The subjects under discussion, it turned out, were their investments and their haemorrhoids.

On-the-job training

NOW I know the Asian economic crisis is serious. What brought this home was the news that women in Bangkok's sex industry are asking to be retrained in some other line of work.

Thailand's education ministry says it is setting up vocational courses after being approached by several "dancers" - for which read prostitutes - from Patpong, Bangkok's infamous red-light district. Some have asked to be taught traditional Thai massage, an eminently more respectable branch of the trade than that practised in Patpong. What this key economic indicator seems to show is that, despite the cheapness of international flights to Thailand, the sex trade cannot manage without local custom. Rather different from what some campaigners would have us believe.