McEwan accepts award, but still attacks Israeli settlements

Catrina Stewart
Monday 21 February 2011 01:00

The British novelist Ian McEwan has accepted an Israeli literary award, despite calls by pro-Palestinian academics and activists to refuse it.

In his acceptance speech at a ceremony in Jerusalem, he nevertheless voiced harsh criticism of the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and of Israel's annexation of Arab-dominated East Jerusalem.

Two days earlier, Mr McEwan had joined celebrated Israeli novelist David Grossman at a weekly protest rally against Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.

Mr McEwan, author of Atonement, went on to praise Israel's technological achievements, but said: "Where is Israel's political creativity?"

Pro-Palestinian writers and academics had urged the author to stay away from Israel in a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians. But he has bridled at pressure to boycott the award.

"If you didn't go to countries whose foreign policy or domestic policy is screwed up, you'd never get out of bed. No, let us come and engage, keep talking. The worst thing that is going to happen is when everyone stops talking," he said.

The writer's visit coincided with a renewed row over Jewish settlements in occupied territory after the US exercised its veto in the United Nations Security Council to block a Palestinian-led resolution condemning the settlements.

The US was the sole dissenter from 15 countries, with Britain, France and Germany all voting in support of the resolution. After the vote, Washington said its position did not mean it supported the settlements, but that it believed the UN was not the forum to resolve the dispute and would only lead to a hardening of positions by both sides.

But the decision to use the veto – the first time since President Barack Obama came to power – is nevertheless embarrassing for Mr Obama, whose administration has been a vocal critic of Israel's settlement policy, forcing Israel into a construction freeze in the West Bank for 10 months last year.

Israel has resisted pressure – including a $3bn (£1.8bn) sweetener from the US – to extend the freeze by several months, a condition set by the Palestinians before they will return to direct peace talks, which collapsed in September last year.

Jordan, which borders Israel, said that the US decision was "regrettable" and "would send a negative message about Washington's credibility towards the Middle East peace process".

About 3,000 Palestinians demonstrated in the West Bank yesterday in a show of anger at the decision. Gathered in Ramallah, they shouted slogans such as: "Obama, you despicable man, we want self-determination!"

Thousands more are expected to join protests on Friday for a "Day of Rage" in response to the UN vote.

Ahead of the gathering of the Security Council, Mr Obama had phoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, urging him to recall the resolution in return for public statements of support and other incentives. One Arabic newspaper reported that he threatened to cut US funding. Salaam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, strongly rejected American pressure yesterday, equating it to blackmail.

"We didn't and will not accept blackmail and neither will our people," Mr Fayyad said in an interview with Associated Press. "We are not interested in aid from any party that threatens to cut it for political reasons.

"The US approach must change because these double standards cannot continue and this situation is unacceptable."

Israeli commentators also criticised the move by Washington, predicting that it would isolate Israel yet further and weaken Mr Obama's ability to bring peace in the Middle East, his stated foreign policy objective.

It may also bolster Mr Abbas's position domestically, as he proved himself able to withstand US pressure, in sharp contrast to the furore over the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes.

Mr Abbas stoked fury at home when he agreed to postpone action on the report in the face of US pressure.

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