PETRA, Jordan (May. 24)
It was a gathering of a number of world-renowned celebrities, but mostly of brilliant minds. Stars like Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama, Queen Rania, Shimon Peres and Richard Gere turned heads and attracted cameras, but the uniqueness of the Petra Conference of Nobel Laureates was the assembly of scientists who were asked to share their wisdom with political leaders and give them a word of advice on how to save "A world in danger," as the conference was called.
King Abdullah of Jordan and the New York-based Eli Wiesel Foundation for Humanity co-hosted the gathering, which was held earlier this month, just before the World Economic Conference Forum at the Dead Sea. Some 25 Nobel Prize winners attended the conference in Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabateans.
The intention was to recruit these non-political minds to formulate practical solutions for today’s problems. Indeed, quite a few of the comments made were so different — and more thought-provoking — than the usual rhetoric of politicians, but the end result was disappointing.
But some felt the conference reflected the changing winds in the Middle East: It has been quite some time since Israelis were received so warmly in an Arab country.
Four Israeli laureates attended: Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who won the 1994 peace prize along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat; Daniel Kahneman, who won in economics in 2002; and Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, who won in chemistry in 2004.
Peres’ comments on the need to "privatize peace" — that is, to expropriate it from politicians — was quoted time and again. He won enthusiastic applause when he compared peace to love.
"You have to close your eyes sometimes so as not to see the imperfections," he said.
In an interview with JTA, Jordanian Prime Minister Adnan Badran praised Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan and entertained the notion of territorial exchanges between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, allowing for West Bank settlement blocs to remain under Israeli rule. Sharon could not have asked for a better advocate.
"I’m optimistic," Badran said. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas "gives hope for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. He is honest about negotiating a settlement through peaceful means. This will give hope for the Israelis."
Earlier, during a panel discussion, Badran spoke just as warmly about the American military effort in Iraq, warning that failure in Iraq would end American influence in the Middle East.
"The U.S. must succeed in Iraq," he said. "If they fail, it will be a disaster. Iraq must come out of the crisis as a model of democracy, just like Japan and Germany after the war. And just as they have done in Japan and Germany, the Americans should leave Iraq only after they have established democracy there."
Badran may have been one of the few participants so enthusiastic about American involvement in Iraq. The conflict was hardly an issue at the conference until Betty Williams of Ireland, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976, raised it.
"It’s the things that didn’t get said at this conference that bother me," she said in a passionate address. "To me the invasion of Iraq was not talked about."
She ridiculed talk about the democratization of Iraq, and mentioned a recent visit to a Baghdad hospital treating 300 children.
"Poor little pieces of humanity who don’t have sufficient drugs to treat their ailments. I asked the doctor in charge, ‘How many of them will live?’ He looked at me and said, ‘None.’
"I come from a country which was invaded by Britain 850 years ago, and we are still dealing with the problem," she continued. "For how many years will Iraq need to cope with the American invasion?"
The difference between the flowery rhetoric in Petra and the misery of the Iraqi people just several hundred miles to the east accentuated the gap between such closed conferences and the cruel facts of the real world.
Not only Iraq was absent from the discussion; so, too, were religious leaders and leaders of the business community. Some elements of religion, though, came under attack.
"The rise of religious fervor explains the rise in violence," Hershko said.
"I refer to the Goldsteins and Bin-Ladens equally," said Aqel Biltaji, an adviser to King Abdullah, referring to a right-wing Jew who killed Palestinians in Hebron and the leader of Al-Qaida. "They have nothing to do with God. These people are blind."
Many have spoken of the need to use science to change the world. But one speaker reminded participants that even with the best of ideas, funding is needed to implement changes.
But representatives of the business community were hardly there. In fact, few of them were invited: They were on their way to the prestigious World Economic Forum, yet another closed club, which opened the next day on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea.