“A Disaster! Right In New York!”

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.

8 thoughts on ““A Disaster! Right In New York!”

  1. theselflobby

    If the US ‘steps back’ from its special relationship with Israel, that allows the Israelis to react/overreact in their own interests. My bet is on overreaction because of the Iranian threat of Israel’s annihilation.

  2. ronyissar

    There is no university in Herzliya. The IDC, which is a neocon leaning private institute, is far from being one. It’s advertisements on the streets nowadays show that they are “growing the next generation of Israely leaders” – with a very clear message about what kind of leaders they are talking about.
    http://mizbala.com/_uploads/images/2010/01/205008.pdf
    No surprize they are funding hasbara.
    Calling this a university (in israely terms) is a disgrace, considering that universities are becoming one of the only public places in Israel where you can actually freely express a left-leaning ideology without being mocked.

  3. Max Post author

    I fixed that about Herzilya — thanks. And agreed about Israeli universities, although the case of Neve Gordon at Hebrew U shows things are changing for the worse.

  4. ahd

    i saw brief exchange between khalidi and Rabinovich on bloomberg the other day promoting this event. it will be aired on bloomberg television on the 15th sometime in the evening.

    its really simple:

    “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence, (I conjure you to believe me fellow citizens,)…since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government…Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another, cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real Patriots, who may resist the intriegues of the favourite, are liable to become suspected and odious; while its tools and dupes usurp the applause & confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.”
    George Washington, farewell speech, 1796, on foreign influence on policy

    while i havent seen the program yet:

    ””–Israel “was forming a 21st century culture.””

    every one should be insulted by this. clearly they havent heard of the BRIC nations.

    –Ehud Barak offered Arafat 95 percent of the West Bank and Arafat “walked away;” “There is no reliable Palestinian partner.”

    another misrepsentation of the facts. if one would actually go over the map (physical geography) and see what the israelis offered, anyone in their right mind would have rejected it.

    –Countries in the “Moslem” world were not sufficiently “dependent American allies” like Israel has been

    its just amazing how people who have a ‘title’ know absolutely nothing about what they’re talking about. the u.s. war on terror is not headquarted in israel. its hq is in doha, with bases spread around the gcc. bahrain is the home to the 5th Fleet (i think its the 5th) and dubai has the only port in the region that can accomodate the aircraft carriers. taking further step, afghanistan’s invasion and iraq’s invasion were all (and still) headquarted in doha. and this isnt even taking into consideration turkey’s role in nato during the 1st iraq war, nor indonesia’s or india’s relationship with the united states (homes to the largest muslim populations). what he should have said, is arab, not muslim.

    –Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally because it exports “Wahabinism.” Only Israel can be depended on in the Middle East.

    another remarkable generic talking point. what does wahabinism have to do with anything?

    –The Palestinian response to “dismantling settlements [in Gaza], dismantling 3000 people” was rocket fire. Again, there is no “Palestinian partner.”

    its amazing how some one who has wronged is expected to pay lip service to the one that wronged him. the israelis did no favors to the palestinians by leaving gaza, it was economically unfeasable to maintain a presence in gaza. there was even a report made on this prior to the withdrawal.

    it sounds like every argument Eizenstat and Rabinovich have made are the same generic, fear creating jibberish that has been told over and over again to the public. how anyone can still believe this dictat is beyond me. was there anything said that hasnt been said before?

  5. ImadK

    When i was reading this piece, i couldn’t help but think of a very similar debate that happened in Washington D.C last year on the Doha Debates. It was also a townhall like debate arguing “This House believes that it’s time for the Us to get tough on Israel” (http://www.thedohadebates.com/debates/debate.asp?d=48&s=5&mode=details) You can view the podcast or read the transcript. Arguing for the motion was Michael Scheuer and Avraham Burg while against the motion was Dore Gold and the notorious Alan Dershowitz.

  6. insipid

    Wow, i just spent a LOT of time on Youtube defending you, now i’m re-thinking my actions. I found the “feel the hate” video profoundly dishonest in that you were interviewing people that were clearly drunk and using that as a representation of how Israel feels in general. While there are a sizeable majority of people in Israel who find Obama more favorable to the Palestinians, 41% of Israelis overall approve of Obama. Either you edited these people out, or you went to a really right wing area to do your interviews. Either way, to seek oppinions of people who have been drinking is just dishonest gutter journalism. Sorry, but it just is.

    And now you’re stating with apparent certainty that any leader of a peace movement in Palestine would certainly be assasinated. This despite the fact that there are anti-settlement people in the Kinneset, in the media, and throughout Israel.

    I’m a liberal, i’m against the settlements, and i’m for Obama’s more balanced approach. But your reporting here is just demonstadably unfair.

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