Charging his batteries in Israel

Alan Dershowitz is upset with the Obama administration’s policy, but still believes the Netanyahu government should make a generous offer to get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Steve Linde 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Steve Linde 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
He’s smart, sharp and savvy, and when it comes to presenting Israel’s case to the world, it’s hard to find a more eloquent and passionate advocate than Alan Dershowitz.
The famous Harvard law professor was in Israel with his wife, Carolyn, this week to receive the Begin Award of Honor at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem “for his long-standing efforts defending Israel”; address a Globes newspaper conference at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv this weekend; launch a new program by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and “meet with old friends,” as he put it – including President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
“It renews my spirit and allows me to continue to work in hutz la’aretz [abroad] when I’m here for a while,” he said, smiling broadly.
“It charges my batteries.”
In an interview on Sunday in a lounge at the David Citadel Hotel, where he was staying, the 73-year-old Dershowitz easily shifted gears to answer questions on a range of subjects, from the Arab Spring, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the Middle East peace process to the controversial Knesset legislation currently being debated and The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on April 29, at which he is scheduled to speak.
He argued that the US should take an unequivocal stand against Iran developing nuclear weapons, resorting to a military option repeatedly if necessary. Dershowitz warned that if President Barack Obama allowed Iran to become a nuclear power, he might be remembered as the 21st century’s Neville Chamberlain.
He expressed disappointment with Obama’s Middle East strategy, and anger at Leon Panetta’s recent comments blaming Israel for the impasse in negotiations with the Palestinians.
He called on the president to fix his erroneous ways and make a trip to both Jerusalem and Ramallah. And he suggested that Israel call the Palestinians’ bluff by doing all it can to get them back to the negotiating table to determine whether there is a real partner for peace.
Regarding the bills in the Knesset that some have called anti-democratic, he said those who claimed that Israel was moving away from democracy were simply wrong.
Dershowitz noted that before coming to Israel, he had stopped in The Hague to meet with the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
“I’m constantly trying to meet with him and persuade him it would be wrong to open up a case against Israel,” he said.
Did you have any success in The Hague? It’s always an ongoing process. I’m comfortable with the conversations that I’ve had.
What is your reading of the dramatic changes in the Arab world, especially in Egypt? I think the Talmud said that prophecy ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, so I’m not going to try to be a prophet. It’s completely unclear. Anybody who claims to know what the future of the Arab Spring, or the Arab cold winter, holds is fooling you. There’s no way of possibly knowing. All we know is that the primary winners of the Egyptian election are not only anti-Israel, but their whole platform is vehemently anti-Semitic, anti- Jewish, and it can’t be good for world peace, it can’t be good for peace prospects and for relations, and I think that the United States makes a terrible decision when it confuses a kind of superficial democracy with real democracy.
The vote may very well have been fair, but the vote in 1932 in Germany was very fair as well, [and] it brought to power somebody who then denied everybody their rights – and it may not happen as quickly in Egypt, but I’m not optimistic that the rights of Christians will be preserved in Egypt, that the relationship between Israel and Egypt will continue in a positive way. I think that one has to be very, very cautious.
That doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree that this is not a time to go to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. It’s always a good time, and of course, the prime minister has said, “We’re willing to negotiate. Just come to the table.”
I was shocked that my secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, foolishly said, “Well, just sit down and negotiate.” He said it to the Israelis, as if the Israelis don’t want to negotiate. Why not say it to the Palestinians? The reason the Palestinians are not negotiating today is largely the fault of the United States. President Obama got out ahead of the Palestinians and really was the one who insisted that the Israelis have conditions, [settlement] freezes, before the Palestinians come to the negotiating table. I wish that President Obama would encourage both sides to negotiate with no preconditions.
So you would recommend that President Obama change his strategy when it comes to the Middle East peace process?
President Obama, for whom I voted, has made serious mistakes. First of all, going to Cairo without going to Israel was a terrible mistake. He can remedy that. He can come to Israel now and speak directly to the Israeli people. He should also go to Ramallah and speak directly to the Palestinian leadership and say, “Come to the negotiating table. No preconditions!”
Then he has to amend what he said about ’67 borders, and say, look, by ’67 borders, I don’t mean that the negotiations begin with the Palestinians having control of the Kotel [Western Wall], having control of the access routes to the university and having control of the Old City and other strategic and important areas. Obviously nobody is giving those areas back. “Back” isn’t even the right word, because they should never have been in Jordan’s hands in the first place.
So there have been a lot of mistakes. On the other hand, I don’t think that Barack Obama is an enemy of Israel. He’s done some good things in terms of security. It’s a mixed situation. The great fear among many American supporters of Israel, Jews and Christians alike, is that a second Obama term could be more dangerous for Israel than the first Obama term was. So everybody’s considering their options.
What about when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program? The secretary of defense urged Israel not to go it alone against Iran, and that everything should be coordinated with the US. What are your feelings about that? I think the United States should announce unequivocally that Iran will not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons, that if they’re on the verge of developing nuclear weapons and if sanctions fail, the military option would have to be used – reluctantly – and if it only sets it back two years, it will be used again and again and again. It has to be made an important part of American foreign policy that Iran will never, never be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. If Iran develops nuclear weapons on President Obama’s watch, he will be regarded by history as the Neville Chamberlain of the 21st century. [Former British prime minister] Neville Chamberlain also had health reform and was a very, very good prime minister – other than the fact that he failed to realize the greatest evil of the 20th century, and if President Obama allows Iran to develop nuclear weapons, it will be a disaster.
Fortunately [former US defense secretary Robert] Gates, who was probably the worst modern secretary of defense [and who] took the military option off the table, is gone. I’m hoping that Panetta will be an improvement. But the United States government is speaking in many voices. Obama seems to be saying that there will be no nuclear weapons developed in Iran. On the other hand, others in the administration seem to be suggesting that the United States will have to learn to live with a nuclear Iran. That would be a disaster. You cannot live with a nuclear Iran.
If we can shift to the situation in Israel – as you know, there is some controversial legislation before the Knesset, including a bill to limit foreign funding to NGOs. Do you have any strong feelings about this? I have strong feelings that probably nobody will like. I think that all sides have engaged in hyperbole and overstatement about these issues. I’m going to propose what I think is a reasonable approach. Generally I always favor the free-speech side. I always believe in more speech rather than less speech, and in the marketplace of ideas, and there’s always going to be free speech in Israel. Israel is never going to be anything but a democracy, and those who claim that Israel is moving away from democracy are just wrong. They’re just wrong.

What about the recent comments of Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, who launched an unprecedented attack on politicians, saying that some Knesset members and even a cabinet minister were inciting and delegitimizing the court? I would not describe what President Beinisch said as an attack. I would describe it as an appropriate defense of the independence of the judiciary. She is, after all, the head of the judicial branch. There are three branches of government in all democracies: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. She’s the head of the judicial branch. If not her, who? If not now, when?
She has an obligation to defend the independence of the judiciary, and I thought she did a very credible job in defending the independence of the judiciary. The worst thing that could happen is to turn the judicial branch into yet another political branch, as it is in so many countries in the world today. The independence of the judiciary is essential to democratic governments.
You’ve made very strong cases for Israel, peace and democracy. Do you think that if Israel remains the only thriving democracy in the Middle East, it could improve its standing in the international arena? Whatever Israel does is turned against it, particularly in Europe, particularly in northern Europe. Israel can do no right in the minds of the Scandinavians, in the minds of the Norwegians, in the minds of many of the members of the United Nations. Let me give you an extreme example. The New York Times’s lead op-ed last week explained why Israel has gay rights, and the thesis of this, the stupidest article I ever read in The New York Times, was [that] the only reason that Israel has gay rights is to cover the fact that it treats its Arab and Palestinian population so terribly.
So whatever Israel does positively is going to be turned against it by these idiots... and by the hard Left. Israel should never do anything in order to please the Left. It won’t work. It should do what it does because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s good for Israel, because it’s good for peace, because it’s good for the important Israel-American relationship, but Israel should never ever try to satisfy the UN, should never try to satisfy the hard-Left NGOs, it should never try to satisfy northern Europe. It will never have an effect.
Do you think it’s still about packaging, and Israel is presenting its case all wrong?
No, I don’t believe that. Look, we can always improve how a case is presented. I teach my students in legal advocacy that there’s never a perfect argument. You can always improve your argument. But how do you respond when you have a wonderful advertising campaign by Israel to bring gays to Israel and make it a gay tourist destination, and then that’s turned against Israel? Or other campaigns that have been used. Look, Israel makes mistakes, too. The recent campaign effort trying to suggest that American Jews aren’t authentic, and that we’ll all be assimilated and that the only answer to the problem of Jewish survival is aliya, that wasn’t the smartest campaign ever. It alienated a lot of American Jews.
So the packaging has some effect, but it’s the reality that Israel is the Jew among nations. Just like packaging couldn’t have improved the status of Jews in Germany in the 1930s, or the status of Jews in Russia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, there’s a limit to what packaging can do.
So what would your best advice be to Netanyahu and the current Israeli government? I have to tell you that in one area I do agree with Leon Panetta, only in this one area. I do think that Israel should do everything necessary to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table, and make a generous offer, of the kind they’ve already made, and let the world see that the Palestinians are the ones rejecting the offer. I think the world has to see that Israel is prepared to make a compromise, that Israel is prepared to accept the two-state solution, Israel is prepared to make terribly painful territorial compromises about areas that are the heritage of the Jewish people. I’m not saying anything new here. It is the position of Israel’s government that it is possible, without concern for its domestic policies, to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. Let them say no. Let them be the ones to reject a deal. Let them say yes, that would be even better.
The tragedy is that it got so close, twice. It got close in 2001, just before [former US] president [Bill] Clinton and [former prime minister] Ehud Barak left office; it got very close just before [former prime minister] Ehud Olmert left office. We’re not close today, although substantively, I think the distances aren’t all that great, but there should be negotiations without preconditions, on either side.
Look, Prime Minister Netanyahu said we can’t make peace unless the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. I agree with that, but he never put that as a precondition. That’s part of the negotiation. So why are settlements a precondition? What should happen is, there should be immediate negotiations toward broad general borders, and then settlement activity can continue in the areas that are going to remain part of Israel and should stop in those areas that will not remain part of Israel.
So the cart shouldn’t be put before the horse. Building should occur once there is a decision, an agreement, about what the ultimate borders should look like, and that can be done in a relatively short period of time.
What do you say to those who argue that the Palestinians have taken the unilateral route to international recognition, that the PA is more interested in making peace with Hamas than with Israel, and that there is no Palestinian peace partner at the moment? It’s very possible there is no partner for peace at the moment. It’s very possible that the Palestinian leadership has decided that their interests have been served by going the unilateral route, or the UN route. But let the world see that. Let Israel make it clear that it is prepared to negotiate a two-state solution, and let the Palestinians say no. Look, I think their gambit at the UN has failed, and I think that there, great work by the Israeli and the United States governments pulled the rug out from under the Palestinian efforts at the UN. It doesn’t mean they won’t get some recognition from the General Assembly, but that’s not worth the paper it’s written on, and the issue is, let’s let the world see who is the nay-sayer and who is the yes-sayer. Israel wants peace and wants a two-state solution. Let them make it feasible for the Palestinians to sit down, and then we’ll see if there’s a partner for peace. We’ll only know that once the negotiations begin.
One final question. Are you looking forward to speaking at The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York in April? The Jerusalem Post Conference that’s planned for the US sounds fantastic. I’m really looking forward, if my schedule permits, to participating in it. The people who have agreed to speak are among the great leaders and great voices. I think the conference should be sensational.
It is important to me that you allow me to add a word of thanks by specific mention of the following in more than a passing reference.
I certainly want to thank Globes for inviting me and giving me a voice at their prestigious platform. I would really like to add a special word of thanks to my friend and former student Danny Grossman, who organized all details of this and all my trips in a tireless and efficient manner. If Danny had been in charge of the Six Day War, it would have been over in three days.
He has for years helped strategize and carry out public diplomacy efforts in making “the case for Israel.”
I am delighted that while I was here, I was able to help launch a new effort by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East that will help organize teachers and professors engage in a fair and honest discourse on campuses around the world.
Students come and go, but it is the faculty that inspires and sets a tone that will affect the way future presidents and prime ministers, business leaders and people in all walks of life think about our region. ■