Conductor Daniel Barenboim tries to bridge the Israeli-Palestininan divide with classical music.

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July 3 2011 6:46 AM

Bringing Beethoven to the West Bank

Conductor Daniel Barenboim tries to bridge the Israeli-Palestininan divide with classical music.

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Last month, in the heart of the West Bank, there was heady talk of September, when the Palestinian Authority plans to  petition the United Nations for statehood. The exhilaration of the Arab spring reverberates through the air. I wonder what Barenboim thinks about the idea of an independent Palestinian state. "Well, I think it would be better if it were not declared unilaterally, because most things decided unilaterally only bring further stress and tension," he concedes. "But if it is not possible to have negotiations, then I think the declaration of a Palestinian state is absolutely right, necessary and perfectly justified."

Justified it may be, but inevitable it is not: many obstacles litter the path between here and September. Barenboim has always reserved particular contempt for "those who say they want peace and are not prepared to pay the price of peace", so it is no surprise to find him outraged by what he sees as glaring inconsistencies in  Israeli  and  US ­attitudes  towards any eventual settlement. "We all know what Mr Netanyahu does not want. He does not want '67 borders. And yet he says he wants peace," Barenboim scoffs. "So I would like to know why he doesn't tell the world what he really wants? And as for Obama, I do not understand it. On the one hand, he agrees that the answer is a two-state solution along '67 borders, and on the other he says that if the Palestinians declare independence, he will veto. Frankly, I don't see the logic of it."

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The phone goes again, and he finally gets up to answer it. The entourage is getting antsy. But he returns to the sofa. "It is as if you and I were married," he grins, "and you would go shopping for food, and I ask for caviar but only give you enough money for tomatoes. And then I blame you for coming home with tomatoes."

If his domestic model seems a tad antiquated, the metaphor highlights a fundamental stumbling block to negotiations. A favoured saying among the Palestinians, "only free men can negotiate", goes one step further – that is, don't expect us to bring you caviar when you've stolen all our tomatoes and stopped us from going to the shop. There was fury among Palestinians when the latest Wikileaks revelations demonstrated the extent of the concessions their negotiators were willing to make, yet Israel would demand much more – something that, says Barenboim, no Palestinian will ever give.

"The Israelis have to understand that the only security that is worthwhile and has a chance to be everlasting will come from Israel being accepted by the Palestinians and therefore indirectly by the Arab world," he says. "Everything else is forced, unnatural and dangerous. The Israelis want an ideological end to the conflict, which they will never get because, let's face it, there is not one Palestinian who will tell you that there is a ­necessity and a right for a Jewish state of Israel to exist there. The Palestinians are pragmatic, they say, 'OK, we are not happy, but let's try and make the best of it'. But they are not willing to give the Israelis the ideological end to the ­conflict, and the Israelis are not willing to try the pragmatic version because they feel it is ­dangerous." He reflects for a moment. "There is nothing more dangerous than somebody who is very strong and very insecure."

Barenboim, who will perform Beethoven in Tel Aviv later this month, has long been denounced as anti-Israeli, despite the warmth with which he talks of his Israeli childhood and education after 1952. "I am certainly not anti-Israeli, but there is no political party in Israel I could vote for with a clear conscience," he clarifies. "My criticisms of the policies of the Israeli government are both on moral grounds – what it has done to Palestinian life and what it has stopped Palestinian life from becoming – and also strategically, because I do not think that this approach in the long term is positive for Israel."

There's another knock on the door. "Listen," he says. "There can be no solution that is good for Israel and bad for the Palestinians, and vice versa. There can only be a solution that in the end is relatively, as much as possible, good for both." Then he grins, mischievously. "And that is the definition of your British compromise, is it not – a solution whereby both parties are equally unhappy?"

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.