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Spiegel Interview with Author Leon de Winter: 'The Europeans Are Chasing Illusions'

Dutch author Leon de Winter talks with SPIEGEL about his new novel, which is set in 2024, the threats mounting against Israel and the assimilation of Muslims in Europe.

Israelis in Jerusalem following a suicide attack that involved a bulldozer on July 2.
AP

Israelis in Jerusalem following a suicide attack that involved a bulldozer on July 2.

SPIEGEL: Mr. de Winter, your new book -- "The Right of Return" -- is a novel, but it actually describes a political vision. In the book, it is the year 2024, and Israel has shrunk to just a few square kilometers around Tel Aviv, which is surrounded by enemies. Are you simply playing with some ideas here or is this a serious prediction?

Leon de Winter: Both. Israel is menaced by two threats. On the one hand, by the hatred of its enemies, which today is primarily stirred up by Iran, and on the other hand, by the erosion spreading throughout Israeli society. There are three groups that have little in common: the Orthodox Jews, the Israeli Arabs and the secular Jews, who currently make up the majority of the population. But this majority is dwindling. The conflict between these three lifestyles is every bit as much of a threat -- if not even more dangerous -- to the existence of Israel as its outside menaces.

SPIEGEL: Does this mean you're afraid that Israel, as a predominately secular Jewish state, could soon be history?

De Winter: I am not a prophet. When I was young, I really wanted to be a prophet, sometimes even the Messiah. But that is what all Jewish boys at a certain age want to be. They all wake up one morning and are absolutely positive: I am the Messiah! Who else would they be? And then they have to attend school, and reality catches up with them. I don't disseminate messages; I tell stories about individuals. On the other hand, you cannot tell stories about Israel in the year 2024 without writing about politics. That just doesn't work.

SPIEGEL: This is not the first time that you have made skeptical remarks about Israel's future. This story sounds like the proclamation of a catastrophe.

De Winter: And that's what it is. The book is a thriller with a sad, almost desperate undertone. But concern about Israel's future was not my starting point here. I focused on a father whose 4-year-old son has suddenly disappeared without a trace. What happens then? His wife leaves him, he can't work anymore, and he quits his job as a professor at Princeton and starts looking for his son. He feels guilty because, for a brief moment, he failed to watch over him. Later on, he realizes that his son's disappearance has to do with global politics.

SPIEGEL: But he doesn't care about politics; he's only interested in his own misfortune.

De Winter: That's right. My story starts in the past and ends in the future. That was my personal framework for articulating all my fears -- in a fictional context. At the same time, I hate science fiction because the present provides enough excitement. I don't need the future to write myself into a rage.

SPIEGEL: Do you think the conflict in the Middle East can be resolved through negotiations, or will the strongest win out in the end?

De Winter: It will depend on who gives up first -- who won't be able to take it any longer because it costs too much: too much energy, too much time, too much blood. And that will be the secular Jews, who have no ideology, who merely want to live their lives.

SPIEGEL: In your vision, many Jews leave Israel and emigrate to Europe or America, where life is easier. In the real Israel, an increasing number of Jews are acquiring a second passport, but it doesn't look like they really want to leave. It's more a modern form of life insurance, just in case things go wrong.

De Winter: It's more than that. Immigration compensates for emigration because Russian Jews are still coming into the country. Nevertheless, take a look at Los Angeles or New York, where there are now large communities of ex-Israelis. And you even have them here in Holland. I wonder what will happen if it comes to a new conflict with Hezbollah. Very soon, the majority of Israelis will live within range of the rockets launched by Hezbollah and Hamas. Contrary to Islam, Judaism has a very weak tradition of martyrdom. In the end, we are powerless against a people who are prepared to sacrifice everything.

SPIEGEL: That said, the number of suicide attacks has declined sharply.

De Winter: Just because there is a wall that stands in the way of the terrorists doesn't mean that their frustrations have disappeared! Look, the age-old yearning of the Jews to return to their historical homeland has engendered the same desire on the Palestinian side: the return to the homeland. It's already a reality for the Jews, yet it remains a dream for the Palestinians. And, as far as the lower number of attacks is concerned, it's an illusion. It will only be a matter of time before they rise again. While we are sitting here talking, the smuggling of arms continues, from Iran to Lebanon via Syria and from Egypt to the Gaza Strip. Nobody can do anything about it. It's the calm before the storm.

SPIEGEL: The Europeans are trying to mediate in the conflict between Iran and the West. They keep returning to the negotiating table to prevent a possible nuclear threat against Israel…

De Winter: ... but what good does it do? Remember the so-called troika, the foreign ministers of Germany, France and the UK: Joschka Fischer, Dominique de Villepin and Jack Straw. They flew to Tehran and back, drank tea and coffee with Iranian politicians and negotiated over the Iranian nuclear program. Imagine that: three respectable European intellectuals negotiating with guys who grew up in the Tehran bazaar and would sell them their own watches! That's the kind of results that it produced. They told us that they had pursued a constructive dialogue but had not yet attained their objectives, and so they said that negotiations had to continue … And these three educated, sensible, and critical European intellectuals went along with this! And then, in the fall of 2003 -- in other words five years ago -- they held a press conference: We've reached our goal! Actually, nothing has happened, no agreement, absolutely nothing.

SPIEGEL: What do you think the Europeans are doing wrong?

De Winter: They are chasing illusions. At the time, I met Fischer during a reception at the headquarters of Springer Verlag (publishing house) in Berlin, and he came to me and asked: "What do you have against me? Why do you write such negative things about me?" I said: "I have placed so much hope in you, but you have disappointed me." And he was really taken aback. I tried to explain the situation to him. He had to be told that the Iranians weren't taking him seriously; they were making a fool of him. Fischer's response to this was that we had to pursue a dialogue and return to the negotiating table again and again.

SPIEGEL: But Fischer was right. What would have been the alternative?

De Winter: We could have told them: If you don't stop, we'll wipe you out!

SPIEGEL: You can't really mean that.

De Winter: Yes, I really do. I would have told the Iranians that if they don't halt their nuclear program today, we'll put the fear of God into them tomorrow. And they would have stopped because that's a language they understand. You can't go to these people and say: "Listen, if you renounce generating nuclear power, we'll help you produce something else. And if you don't do that, well, we'll be very, very sad." "Okay," is definitely what the guys in Tehran would say "That's a threat that we take seriously, and we'll meet your demands." What a ludicrous idea.

SPIEGEL: That is, with all due respect, the slightly simplified worldview of a novelist who lives in nice, little Holland and doesn't have to make such decisions. A foreign minister has responsibilities and has to be more cautious in his judgments.

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