On February 9, Intelligence Squared sponsored a debate on the resolution: “The US should step back from its special relationship with Israel.” Debating in favor of the resolution were Roger Cohen and Rashid Khalidi; against it were former US Ambassador to the European Union Stuart Eizenstat and former Israeli Ambassador to the US and ex Tel Aviv University President Itamar Rabinovich. I was among the overflow crowd of several hundred people that packed New York University’s student union for the event.
The debate was introduced by Robert Rosenkranz, the insurance magnate who launched Intelligence Squared through his foundation. He set the tone by commenting, “Well this could be the year that Iran gets the bomb… And getting back to a nuclear Iran, Israel might well be our best shield. Israel did the U.S., in the region, a favor, I would argue, by bombing the Syrian reactor. Maybe it will do the dirty work again so we don’t have to tolerate a nuclear Iran.”
(Intelligence Squared Executive Producer Dana Wolfe is a former staffer to Benjamin Netanyahu; Rosenkranz’s daughter-in-law, Stephanie Hessler, who helps him direct the foundation, is an outspoken neocon who has defended torture and assailed Obama’s policies on prosecuting accused terrorists).
Eisenstat led the argument against the resolution. He insisted that pulling away from Israel would be “a sign of American weakness” that would send a chill down the spine of our European allies, as though America would pull away from Great Britain next. Then he made a point I’d never heard before: Israel, with its massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, was actually “stopping nuclear proliferation” in the Middle East. A few more of Eisenstat’s arguments:
–Israel “was forming a 21st century culture.”
–Ehud Barak offered Arafat 95 percent of the West Bank and Arafat “walked away;” “There is no reliable Palestinian partner.”
–Countries in the “Moslem” world were not sufficiently “dependent American allies” like Israel has been
–Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally because it exports “Wahabinism.” Only Israel can be depended on in the Middle East.
–The Palestinian response to “dismantling settlements [in Gaza], dismantling 3000 people” was rocket fire. Again, there is no “Palestinian partner.”
The most baseless of Eisenstat’s points, in my view, was that, “The Palestinians would have a state by now if there was a Palestinian Martin Luther King.” This often repeated canard went unchallenged by Cohen and Khalidi, who had been handed a golden opportunity to inform the audience about Mubarak Awad, Jamal Juma, Mohammad Othman, and the hundreds, if not thousands, of non-violent activists who have been killed, deported, captured, and tortured by Israel. The debaters could have said, “If Martin Luther King were Palestinian, he would have been assassinated or jailed and tortured.” And they could have highlighted Eisenstat’s unintentional, but apt, comparison of Israel to the Jim Crow South. Instead, when Khalidi was asked about Eisenstat’s point during Q&A, he launched into an analysis of the Madrid conference of 1991. This was the biggest missed opportunity of the night, in my opinion.
Rabinovich supported Eisenstat’s argument by highlighting Israel’s value to the US as a military proxy. Omitting bin Laden’s stated grievances about Israel, Eisenstat remarked that the al-Qaida leader launched the 9/11 plot because US troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia. But Israel has no American troops on its soil (see Nora Barrows-Friedman’s expose on the massive US weapons stockpile in Israel), so it is the perfect ally. It can carry out attacks against American enemies, he suggested, without the same consequences to America. The argument reminded me of a funny t-shirt sold to tourists in Jerusalem that depicts an F-16 and reads, “Don’t worry, America. Israeli is behind you!”
Cohen spoke about his recent trip to the West Bank and the colonialism — he didn’t use the word apartheid — that he witnessed there. Cohen said the special relationship had prevented Barack Obama from meting out any consequences to Israel for its violation of his call for a settlement freeze. When Netanyahu recently planted a tree at a West Bank Jewish settlement and pledged settlements today, settlements tomorrow, settlements forever, he revealed the real character of the special relationship.
Cohen’s point was a good one, but he did not discuss Gaza; did not once discuss the plight of Palestinians living inside 48 Israel or the rise of the far-right; and did not mention the violent attacks on Palestinians by settlers or the Israeli Army in the West Bank. He was erudite and eloquent, but clearly not immersed enough in the day-to-day events, politics or trends of conflict to poke holes in the arguments of his opponents.
Khalidi argued that the special relationship had prevented the US from taking into account the security of the Palestinian people. He mentioned the 1400 deaths caused by Israel in the Gaza assault but did not go into much detail. He also noted that while Israel diverts US taxpayer money into settlement construction, US non-profits were sending tax deductible donations to the settlements as well. “We are in effect engaged in supporting an occupation that has been going on for 42 years and counting,” said Khalidi. ” We are in effect underwriting settlements.”
Nothing Cohen or Khalidi said was particularly revelatory. If anything, they seemed overly conciliatory to their opponents and defensive before an audience full of hardline pro-Israel forces. However, they were introducing ideas rarely heard in mainstream American discourse. Because the debate is supposed to air on Bloomberg in the near future, I think Cohen and Khalidi did the public a major service. On the other hand, they could have better recognized the significance of their platform and argued their position more forcefully and confidently.
When I first heard about the debate, I was puzzled by Rabinovich’s selection. The resolution seemed like a question Americans should be arguing, yet an Israeli was delegated to declare what the US should do in its foreign policy. Rabinovich’s very presence in the debate was an exhibit of the perversity of the special relationship.
During Q&A, the audience heard from a young Israeli woman from Herziliya Interdisciplinary Center (I corrected from Herzilya University). The woman, who had an Israeli accent, said she was enrolled in the Argov Program, which according to Herzliya IDC President Amnon Rubinstein, was “An important step to help refute the constant lies being told about the State of Israel abroad.” She was a hasbara soldier trained to catapult the propaganda around the world.
“All the studies and all polls show that the United States supports this special relationship,” the woman declared. “Isn’t it a shame to American democracy that this is not factored in the debate?” Here was another Israeli attempting to dictate to Americans — a perfect portrait of the special relationship.
Cohen responsed, as he should have, that the real shame to American democracy was that the Israel Lobby had obstructed the US from acting in its own interests vis a vis the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, Cohen did not state any facts or cite any on-the-record sources. Instead, he said, “I understand” that Obama has been told by a Jewish congressman from Florida that if he wanted his healthcare reform bill, he would have to step back on Israel. Predictably, the heavily Jewish audience booed and hissed.
There was little reason to doubt Cohen’s account. However, Cohen did not serve himself well by citing a background source when there is more than enough material on the public record about the Lobby’s strongarming of Obama and Congress. He handed Eisenstat the perfect opportunity to denounce with all the righteous indignation he could muster the “dangerous canard” of Jewish influence, thereby suggesting Cohen was endangering the safety of his people. If I were judging the debate on performance alone, I would have handed it to Eisenstat and Rabinovich.
Before the debate began, audience members were asked to vote on the resolution with little remote controls attached to their seats. The resolution lost by 10 points. But when the audience voted after the debate, the resolution won by a narrow margin. The silent majority had spoken.
“A disaster! And right in New York!” I heard an elderly man with a thick Israel accent say to his wife.
Outside the auditorium, I asked Khalidi about the results. “Very weird,” was all he said.