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Friday, February 18, 2011

Ian McEwan praises Israel before book award

Novelist defends his acceptance of prize after calls to reject it in protest at occupation of Palestinian territories

The British novelist Ian McEwan has praised Israel as a "country with true democracy of opinion" before receiving the Jerusalem prize for literature this weekend.

He defended his decision to accept the award, saying it was a "great honour" and "much more useful to come and engage and keep speaking" than to freeze out or boycott Israel over its occupation of the Palestinian territories.

"I am very conscious of being in a country with a true democracy of opinion," he told a press conference in Tel Aviv. "I am perfectly aware that you cannot isolate [literature] but I take it as a bad sign when politics permeates every corner of life. I don't feel I endorse every corner of Israel's domestic or foreign policy … but I feel it's right to engage with it."

Reading the Israeli press following his arrival on his first visit to the country was an illustration of "the extraordinary range of opinion", he said, adding that it was a great honour to be awarded the prize and pointing to past recipients as "writers and philosophers of such distinction".

"Like most people, I want Israel to flourish. I'm very concerned that things have reached such a stalemate politically. It seems to me to be a rather depressing time politically to come here – but that makes it all the more urgent to keep talking."

McEwan faced calls in the UK to reject the prize in protest at Israel's continued occupation of the Palestinian territories. In a letter to the Guardian last month, a group called British Writers in Support of Palestine said the occupation and continued illegal settlement building in East Jerusalem and West Bank made acceptance of an award in recognition of individual freedom in society "a cruel joke and a propaganda tool for the Israeli state".

The author responded by saying that despite his opposition to illegal settlements, he was in favour of "dialogue, engagement, and looking for ways in which literature … can reach across political divides".

The award is due to be presented at the opening of the Jerusalem International Book Fair on Sunday evening by the city's mayor, Nir Barkat, an enthusiastic advocate of expanding the Jewish presence in Arab East Jerusalem.

East Jerusalem was occupied and later annexed by Israel in 1967 in a move illegal under international law and not recognised by most of the international community. Settlement building and expansion there has been a key issue blocking peace negotiations. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

McEwan said he planned to spend time over the next few days "walking around Jerusalem, doing some tourism. I will get to see things," he said.

He had spent the past few weeks "camped out in front of my television set" watching the pro-democracy protests in Egypt and other countries in the region.

He felt exhilarated by what he saw, and was struck by the swift collapse of the "social contract – how people feel bold enough to withdraw their consent. Crowds aren't usually wise, but [the Egyptian protesters'] restraint under pressure was heroic … It has held me completely in its grip."

But he warned that the story was "still unfolding". Referring to the bloody response of the Bahrain regime to protests, he said: "Egypt has raised the game for the tyrant – they know they've got to get in quick and hold everyone down.

"For every moment of exhilaration on the street, there is a Robespierre in waiting," he said, and questioned whether it was right to call events in Egypt a revolution. "It seems odd when the army is in charge."

McEwan hoped the Israeli government would "welcome the spread of democracy rather than be too distrusting. [Israeli prime minister Binyamin] Netanyahu said Israel must hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Hoping for the best is not enough, maybe [Israel] should be agitating for the best."

Israel, he suggested, should harness its creativity in other spheres to the peace process. "Politics is too bunker. Israel needs to summon up the creative energy of its scientists, musician, writers and artists and extend it into politics."

He paid tribute to contemporary Israeli novelists such as David Grossman, Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua, who had "made a huge impact around the world".

The writer declined to discuss his next novel, saying only that it was "slightly more historical, meaning it's set in 1972", than his latest book, Solar, about climate change.

He hoped the award of the Jerusalem prize was not a valedictory on his career. "I feel like Mrs Thatcher – I will go on and on."