During February a small restaurant close to the offices of The Middle East took the bold step of declaring that it was dispensing with traditional billing. “No food bills,” announced a board outside the Little Bay restaurant in London’s Farringdon Road, “pay us what you think our food is WORTH.” The restaurant owner, speaking on local radio, said he was confident that the quality of his food would ensure customers paid a fair price.
The Little Bay is an agreeable restaurant where the service is good and the menu is reasonably priced. I have used it many times so, when it came to paying my bill last month, I elected to pay the same as I always pay. I was somewhat astonished therefore, when two young men who had clearly enjoyed the full three courses at the next table, announced that they would not be paying anything – neither did they offer the waitress the customary tip before leaving the restaurant. Is that, I wondered, what the two young men really felt the food was worth – nothing? I didn’t think so, not if their empty plates were anything to judge by. They had seen an opportunity and seized it, a chance to behave selfishly and dishonourably while remaining within the letter of the law. A chat with the waitresses indicated that these two young men were not alone.
During the course of the “pay what it’s worth” experiment, most diners had chosen to pay a fair price; several had paid nothing; others paid not what they felt the food was worth, but rather what they felt they wanted to spend. If before sampling the food, they decided they would pay only £5, or even £2, for a meal normally charged at £10, then £5 or £2 was what they paid. They allowed themselves no room for manoeuvre, the figure was determined before they entered the restaurant. Some – I was told – ate two full meals and paid for a fraction of the usual cost of one.
Such selfish actions reminded me very much of some past peace talks on the Middle East where, even though the mood appeared to be one of general goodwill and flexibility, certain participants were prepared to take everything on offer but give the barest minimum in return and, sometimes, like the London diners, nothing at all. Talks on repairing the political, social and infrastructural damage in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine will feature prominently on the international agenda in the next few weeks. Already there is dissention, with certain participants demanding conditions tailored to suit their own requirements, irrespective of the needs of others. Such meetings cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars to organise and stage but, unless each participant enters the talks with an open mind, what are such negotiations actually worth?
If delegates bring to the conference table only their self-interest and greed, remaining unwilling to compromise, little or nothing can get done. The Middle East, in the face of the global credit crunch, is – like all other global players – fighting for its future. But what ails the region is not merely tied to depressed stock markets or the uncertain price of oil. A resumption of factional fighting in Iraq could undo all the goodwill achieved with the February election results and US sponsorship, in recent months. The thread by which peace hangs in Afghanistan must be protected and nurtured at all costs if there is to be any prospect of an end to the conflict in that ravaged land. As for the Occupied Territories when, finally, an Israeli government is put in place, establishing the foundations for a two-state solution, the only credible option to this six decades-long war, must be a top priority for Israel, the United States and the world community.
A colleague pointed out to me that the actions of the London restaurateur disproved the old adage that “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. I disagree; only a person without honour or conscience would abuse such an offer – or a very hungry one. Within a Middle East context, it is easy to identify the genuinely hungry, just as it is simple to pick out the greedy and the insatiably rapacious. With this in mind, we must ensure that the next round of meetings to determine the fate of this vital region amounts to more than the opportunity of yet another free lunch for the rich and powerful while those in genuine need enjoy nothing more than the crumbs from their table.