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The tension between them is palpable. Or would be, if the surrounding clamor weren't distracting from and camouflaging it. Which is at once a relief and a burden to both. Each has cause for wanting to keep the bone of contention that has severed their relations private. Simultaneously, however, each secretly wishes for the rift to reveal itself, either for the purpose of healing, or - if that fails - of enlisting outside support for self-justification.
That they were certain to encounter one another at the Herzliya Conference was something neither had cared to contemplate during the week before the event. Doing so would not have served either's emotional or professional interests. Rather, it would have added to the already high anxiety each has been experiencing of late - born of heart-ache and soul-searching - channeled, for lack of choice, into career ambitions. In this sense, the conference is crucial for each - in terms of the wealth of connections it promises to provide, if not actual funding in the form of a grant, stipend, teaching gig or lecture tour.
The lobby of the Daniel Hotel, though big and buzzing with the exchange of banter and business cards, is nevertheless a finite space. Particularly the small area designated as the smoking section. Unfortunately for their health (in more ways than one) both protagonists in this comedy-of-errors have left the plenum - following Amir Peretz's speech - for a cigarette break. It is here that the two former friends unwittingly converge for the first time - he carrying a chip on his tailored shoulder, and she toting a document-heavy designer bag on hers.
They have never been lovers, though the mutual stiffness and forced formality of their greeting reads like the body language of romance gone awry. Nor is the nature of their quarrel cerebral. In fact, their intellectual pursuits are as parallel as their credentials - and as compatible as their politics.
From this, one could easily conclude that their clash is characterized not by opposition, but by competition; one might even be able to find factual evidence to back up such a claim. Indeed, acquaintances unfamiliar with the details of the controversy that has culminated in Martin's and Melanie's no longer being on speaking terms have attributed the split to mutual suspicion based on envy.
It is thus that, when Martin and Melanie convene among the smokers, their cold cordiality is considered by the other people present to be par for the course. Martin and Melanie have something problematic in common, after all: Both experts in radical Islam, they are constantly vying for the same slots, and coming up with similar book proposals.
As each would be the first to acknowledge, however, their newfound animosity toward one another is as misconceived as global jihad. Just as the source of the latter is not the plight of the Palestinians, neither is the former rooted in job-related jealousy.
The trouble is that the truth about their tiff is something which neither Martin nor Melanie is particularly proud of. So much so that each prefers being thought of as professionally petty. This, in their books, beats being branded as merely pathetic. And in serious need of a love-life. Something each used to have - Martin with Melanie's best friend, and Melanie with Martin's. Something each lost, for which Martin blames Melanie's big mouth, and for which Melanie blames Martin's mean-spirited thirst for revenge.
"CAN YOU believe he had the gall to hint there was an opportunity for some kind of truce?" Melanie huffs, the minute Martin turns his back on her and runs to catch up with the head of the think tank he's praying will give him a fellowship.
"I can't believe that anything our laughing-stock of a defense minister says still moves anyone, least of all you," responds a colleague of Melanie's, who is also a friend.
"Not Peretz, for crying out loud," Melanie whispers loudly into her friend's ear. "I was talking about Martin."
"What's up with that, anyway?" her friend asks, lifting her conference folder to let a busboy replace the table's butt-filled ashtray with a clean one.
"I wish I knew," Melanie says, shrugging sadly. "I think it has something to do with a piece of gossip he says I spread."
"Why don't you ask him, then?" her friend suggests, looking up at the large screens scattered across the room to see if the speaker at the podium is one she should be making an effort to listen to. When she sees it is Vice Premier Shimon Peres, she is satisfied she can give her undivided attention to Melanie's much more compelling account of conflict over the Mediterranean - a spectacular view of which gives the venue and atmosphere of the conference added value.
"I'm too angry at the moment," Melanie answers, looking at her watch and then at the revolving door at the hotel's entrance; she does not want to miss a scheduled meeting that could have a positive impact on her future in Israel and on her reputation abroad.
"THAT WOMAN'S assertions are disingenuous at best," Martin seethes, exiting the dining room as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni finishes addressing the conference. "And dangerous at worst."
"Only dangerous if Kadima remains in office," says the woman in whom Melanie nearly confided earlier. "Or if she succeeds in pushing aside Olmert and taking his place."
"Not Livni, for crying out loud," Martin says, lowering his voice. "I was talking about Melanie."
"What's up with that, anyway?" the woman asks, wondering if she shouldn't simply stay out of it - but letting curiosity get the better of her.
"Why don't you ask her?" Martin answers, fiddling with the string of his name-tag, that has become entangled in his necktie.
"Actually, I did already," the woman says, fishing for her keys, as she walks past the armed guards who bid her farewell.
"Really?" Martin asks, his eyes widening. "And what did she say?"
"Something about a piece of gossip she allegedly spread," the woman says, squinting to locate her car in the now-dark parking lot. "Talk to her and work it out already."
"Only if she initiates the conversation," Martin insists, one hand on a paper he will be presenting, the other on the woman's window.
"I'll pass that on in the morning," the woman says, waving at Martin as she drives off. "We special Middle East envoys get tired at this hour."