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Russia and the Middle East Quartet

Does a Russian fable illustrate the West's Middle East policy?

May 3, 2003

Does a Russian fable illustrate the West's Middle East policy?

The fable is one of the oldest literary forms known to humankind. It is a simple story, often involving animals behaving like humans — and usually containing a moral. Ultimately, it's a nice way to present a bit of folksy wisdom — or a witty comment on human follies and ambitions.

The earliest European fables are attributed to Aesop, a Greek slave of obscure origins. He lived on the island of Samos some time in the 6th century B.C. Some research indicates that, curiously enough, he might have even been illiterate — and merely retold folk stories orally from India.

Be that as it may, many European cultures have fable writers of their own. In the beginning, they reinterpreted Aesop's fables in their native language — or wrote new ones of their own.

The wit and wisdom of fables make it a beloved reading for kids. For instance, many generations of French children have grown up on the fables of 17th century poet Jean de la Fontaine.

Although many fables are ancient in origin, they somehow remain relevant in the modern world. William Bennett, for instance, U.S. Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration and a zealous public guardian of morality in modern American culture, included such timeless gems in his anthology of 'proper' children's literature, The Children's Book of Virtues.

They include "The Tortoise and the Hare", "The Lion and the Mouse" and other classic fables.

Russia has its own revered national fable writer, Ivan Krylov. Although not well-known outside Russia, Krylov's fables also include versions of Aesop's and La Fontaine's tales, as well as original fables based on Russian folklore.

They have been staple reading materials for Russian kids ever since he wrote them in the first half of the 19th century.

Among his most famous tales is one called "Quartet". It describes how a monkey, a donkey, a goat and a bear got their paws on some sheet music and musical instruments — and tried to make music together. Although they changed places several times, for some reason the result in each case was nothing but a dreadful cacophony.

Now, whoever named the working group comprising representatives of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia a "Quartet", he or she clearly hoped for some harmonious thinking to be done at the highest diplomatic level.

After all, musical quartets may not be well adapted to playing triumphal marches, but at least they produce very agreeable, relaxing chamber music.

In this case, the apparent idea was that — while it might not produce a definitive solution — at least it could work out a blueprint for resuming the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is a sure bet, however, that naming the group Quartet was not a Russian idea. Because to any Russian, the word "Quartet" immediately brings to mind Krylov's fable —and is therefore associated with ineptitude, discord and failure.

Unfortunately, since it came into existence in July 2002, the diplomatic Quartet — so far at least — has lived up to its name in the Russian interpretation.

The four members of the diplomatic club have met at various venues. And they have been trying to come up with a mutually acceptable 'road map' for resuming negotiations in the Middle East. Either way, they have so far failed to agree among themselves — let alone convince the Israelis and the Palestinians to act.

The Krylov fable ends when the four would-be musicians asked the nightingale for advice. The bird's answer applies to the members of the diplomatic Quartet for the Middle East, as well: "However much you change positions, My friends, you’ll never make musicians!"

One can only hope that somehow this cacophony magically resolves itself into dynamic and harmonious music. Otherwise, the Middle East will remain a dark and somber place.