Professor Dershowitz Encounters a Worrying Future

by , April 02, 2009

On 25 March 2009, I participated in a "Doha Debate" held at Georgetown University under the auspices of the Qatar-Based Doha Foundation.  The Oxford Union-style question before the house was: "This house believes that it is time for the U.S. administration to get tough with Israel."  The "no" team consisted of Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and former Israeli foreign ministry adviser Dore Gold.  On the "yes" team were myself and Avraham Burg, a former speaker of Israel’s Knesset.  Each speaker made a 2-minute opening statement and then was question by the moderator, Tim Sebastian.  Thereafter, the debaters fielded questions from the audience for about an hour, and then the audience voted.  The "yes" team won 67-percent of the vote, the "no" team 33-percent. 

Having seldom been on any winning team, I was more than a bit surprised by the result.  On reviewing the debate in my mind it seems to me that the victory of the "yes" position probably was the result of the "no" team’s fundamentally age-old and well-scripted arguments, which were in summary: Washington must leave Israel to do what it pleases; the U.S. should not interfere with internal Israeli affairs; putting U.S. pressure on Israel will cause more not less bloodshed; and the U.S. must keep funding and arming Israel to the extent Israel deems necessary to defend itself against existential enemies, especially Iran.  

Now, Messrs. Dershowitz and Gold have every right to hold and endlessly repeat these carved-in-stone views, and I must say that the former expressed his position powerfully and at times theatrically, like the outstanding trial lawyer he is.  Mr. Gold seemed content to play the role of his partner’s amanuensis.  As a good former diplomat, Mr. Gold took no positions at all that could be attributed to him.  He resolutely refused to answer direct and specific questions from the moderator, and when responding to audience questions he mostly read from a file of press clippings, thereby using quotations from others for his answers. 

The most impressive of the debaters was Mr. Burg.  The former Knesset speaker and current peace activist is an eloquent and to-the-point speaker who successfully used humor to puncture the sanctimony of several of the "no" team’s well-worn bromides.  For his part, Mr. Burg clearly and concisely argued that the best chance for an equitable two-state solution was for the U.S. government to take a strong, almost parental hand to cajole and, if necessary, coerce both Israelis and Palestinians to reach an equitable agreement. 

I found Mr. Burg’s position logical, thoroughly informed, and poignant, but ultimately unconvincing.  If the U.S. government had a policy on the Israel-Palestine issue that was based on protecting genuine U.S. national interests, it just might be able to play the role Mr. Burg suggested.  But Washington does not have such a position; under leaders of both parties the U.S. position is that of the Likud, and they are held to mark by the anti-American Israel-Firsters in the media, the Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and AIPAC.  Ultimately, Mr. Burg’s campaign for an equitable two-sate solution will be defeated by pro-Israel U.S.-citizens, who are also likely to be the agents of Israel’s demise. 

I was the weak link in the debate.  My opening statement was too long; I was caught off-guard by Mr. Sebastian’s appropriately aggressive opening question; and I am far from as well-versed on the minutia of Israel-Palestine affairs as the other debaters.  But I did learn two things from the debate. 

* First, when Mr. Dershowitz stressed that the Israel-Palestine war was not a religious conflict, I asked him why so many Republican and Democratic leaders – and evangelical Israel-Firsters like Reverends Haggee and Graham – claim that it is America’s duty to ensure that God’s promise to Abraham about the land of Israel is kept.  Mr. Dershowitz responded "they are wrong," which can only mean that Israel’s claim on the land they took from the Palestinians, with the West’s help, is based on Israel having more and better guns than Palestinians, as well as unqualified U.S. military support. 

* Second, after Mr. Dershowitz — hands waving in the air — raked me over the coals for suggesting that such a thing as the malignant influence of Israel-Firsters even exists in U.S. politics and foreign-policy making, I argued that the roles of Messrs. Feith, Wolfowitz, Perle and others in facilitating America’s war of self-immolation in Iraq suggested there was indeed a strong Israel-First influence in the highest councils of the U.S. government.  Mr. Dershowitz’s response was classic, predictable, irrelevant, and a successful tactic to divert debate from the issue at hand.  He loudly told the audience something akin to:  "Listen to the ethnic names Scheuer is using!  He is a bigot, a bigot."  As the name-caller from Harvard Yard railed on, I said that the names James Woolsey, Victor Davis Hanson, Andrew McCarthy, and the two evangelical preachers mentioned above could be added to the list but I suspect the words were drowned out by my opponent’s contemptible but effective theatrics. 

Mr. Dershowitz and Mr. Gold seem to believe that Americans who disagree with them will always refuse to publicly attack the reality of pro-Israel subversion as long as the Israel-Firsters can pull from the stone the great Excalibur of U.S. politics and strike Americans with a blade emblazoned "bigot" and "anti-Semite."  Perhaps the 2-to-1 vote of the Doha Debate’s audience against Mr. Dershowitz and Mr. Gold suggests that times are beginning to change, at long last, in favor of genuine U.S. national interests. 

The Doha Debate described herein will be televised by BBC World on 4 and 5 April 2009.

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