Beinart & Ibish debate Stephens & Boteach

Beinart & Ibish debate Stephens & Boteach

Columbia’s School of International Relations hosted a debate last week pitting liberals Peter Beinart and Hussein Ibish against conservatives Brett Stephens and Shmuley Boteach on whether Israel’s policies are justified. I felt that Beinart was effective in making the case for Israel needing to withdraw from many settlements, including the long intrusive salient that culminates in the small city of Ariel, in order to make a two-state solution viable; he was also correct in characterizing Stephens and Boteach as engaging in diversionary arguments, and that Rabbi Boteach argued in an ad hominem fashion (and, I’d add, with a very minimal grasp of facts).  I’ll comment on Ibish and Stephens below this video of the entire debate, which begins (unfortunately) with a virtually unintelligible intro by a student:
Stephens, a former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post who currently works for the Wall Street Journal, was a more polished debater than Boteach.  He is correct in noting that the Palestinians’ failures in governance, including their not engaging in scheduled elections (among other things) damage their case for sovereignty; I support it anyway (mostly for Israel’s sake), but these problems — not to mention Palestinian attacks on Green Line Israel — make it more difficult to convince most Israelis of their readiness for peaceful coexistence. And, if I recall correctly, Beinart did respond that the unilateral nature of the Gaza withdrawal, purposely avoiding any negotiation with the Palestinian Authority, helped set up this situation.  I don’t recall if he argued this point as effectively as Yossi Beilin has, that Sharon handed Hamas a victory by seeming to reward their advocacy of “armed struggle” rather than the Fatah/Palestine Authority strategy of negotiations.

Stephens was seemingly effective in using the peaceful borders of the U.S. and Canada as a model counterpoint to the violence between Israel and the Palestinian territories.  But if Israel has to wait for the Palestinians to become like Canadians, it’s a perfect excuse for never making a deal; even the Canadians were not peaceful neighbors in the early years of United States history, with the U.S.  coming to blows along that border during the War of 1812 and for a few years after until settling the boundary with Maine.  Conservatives rarely forgive or forget historical conflicts; we should take them seriously, but also cultivate changing the circumstances which engendered those conflicts.

I have enormous respect for Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a longtime ally of the pro-Israel/pro-peace camp of which we are a part.  (Click here for his “Surrounded by fanatics,” a marvelous essay on rhetorical extremism from both sides.)  But I think he argued for an overly conventional application of international law regarding the Gaza Strip.  Although it’s clear that Sharon messed up the Gaza withdrawal by not negotiating — or at least not coordinating — with the PA, the UN proves that international law is not always very meaningful in declaring Gaza to still be occupied (I believe, on the technical grounds that it is categorized as a single legal entity with the West Bank).

By | 2014-04-08T13:20:00-04:00 April 8th, 2014|Blog|11 Comments


  1. Anonymous April 9, 2014 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    Dear Ralph,

    All serious interpreters of international law that I am aware of hold that Gaza remains under Israeli military occupation due to it’s effective control of the Gaza Strip. You are welcome to read about international law, research what those who interpret international law (other than say the Israeli gov’t and Jerusalem Post) have to say. Not sure what Hussein Ibish argued, nor what your UN reference was, but it sounds like Ibish may be your partner in ignorance of Int Law, sadly. Here are but a few of many, many citations I could find if I had more time:

    Israeli officials stated that the blockade, an unlawful form of collective punishment against residents of an occupied territory, would remain in place until Hamas releases soldier Gilad Shalit who was captured in 2006. Israel is Gaza’s major source of electricity (Egypt supplies some as well) and sole source of fuel, which Israel does not permit from other sources. In addition, Gaza’s sole power plant operated at low capacity due to the PA’s failure to pay Israel for industrial fuel shipments. Gaza residents suffered daily blackouts lasting 8 to 12 hours.

    As the occupying power, Israel has the primary responsibility for addressing the current crisis by immediately increasing fuel supplies to Gaza. It must also address the long-term crisis by completely lifting the blockade, including by allowing fuel into Gaza without restrictions, allowing construction materials and equipment necessary for repairing and maintaining vital infrastructure, and increasing electricity supplies to Gaza by facilitating the construction of new power lines.

    Leading experts in humanitarian law maintain that effective control may also exist when the army controls key points in a particular area, reflecting its power over the entire area and preventing an alternative central government from formulating and carrying out its powers. The broad scope of Israeli control in the Gaza Strip, which exists despite the lack of a physical presence of IDF soldiers in the territory, creates a reasonable basis for the assumption that this control amounts to “effective control,” such that the laws of occupation continue to apply.

    Etc., etc., It would seem appropriate to do basic reading and research before making these types of claims. And Palestinians should not be held accountable for the poor arguments that Hussein Ibish might be claiming to make on their behalf. A further reminder that Ibish is not Palestinian, nor does his group, the ATFP, have any significant Palestinian support.

    A real shame that the organizers of this event did not find it appropriate to have a Palestinian speaker.

    Thank you,


  2. Ralph Seliger April 9, 2014 at 4:38 pm - Reply

    I’ll let Dr. Ibish speak for himself, but Ted’s learned discourse on international law says nothing to Israelis who have been subject to thousands of rocket attacks since Israel’s withdrawal. “Fortunately,” (not the right word), only about 20 people have been killed by these attacks.

    I do not advocate a hard line toward Gaza and Hamas, but I do not know that international law has anything to say to Israel about safeguarding its territory from enemies in Gaza who target its citizens, openly advocate the overthrow of its government and regularly spew hatred & insults at Jews.

  3. Anonymous April 9, 2014 at 8:03 pm - Reply

    Dear Ralph,

    That is a diversionary tactic. You made a factually incorrect and even bizarre assertion about international law, and I corrected it.

    You then responded by avoiding the error and instead raising another issue, and it was again a red herring! Yes indeed, international law does state that attacks on civilians are illegal, whether those attacks are carried out by Palestinians or Israelis and it states that people have right to defend themselves against attacks on civilians, but again according to specific principles, which you can find in very simplified form:

    Once again, I don’t know how you could have missed the reports from organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and others saying that.

    But rocket attacks from Gaza during the last 8 years don’t justify 47 years of Israeli military occupation of the Gaza Strip, nor Israel’s failure to respect the principles of military necessity, proportionality, distinction, nor countless other human rights obligations.

    I am surprised and troubled when people who follow this issue for years and claim to care about human rights don’t bother to learn the basics like about human rights obligations.


  4. Ralph Seliger April 9, 2014 at 8:31 pm - Reply

    As an avid reader of this blog, Ted should know that we both support Israel’s right to defend its citizens and were very critical of the attacks on Gaza in 2008-09. Ted hasn’t told us how he sees Hamas and others’ attacks on Israel’s territory and against its non-combatant citizens before and after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

  5. Gil Kulick April 9, 2014 at 9:05 pm - Reply

    The reason that Gaza is still regarded as occupied by Israel is not based — or need not be — “the technical grounds that it is categorized as a single legal entity with the West Bank,” but rather that Israel controls the land, sea, and air borders of Gaza and therefore controls virtually all legal entry and exit into and out of the territory, which amounts to de facto occupation. To contend, as the Israelis do, that Gaza is “independent” is a total fiction.

  6. Anonymous April 9, 2014 at 9:05 pm - Reply

    Dear Ralph,

    Israel’s attacks on Gaza have been continuous and not limited to 2008-09. So if that is all Partners has criticized, you’re missing a large part of the problem. And very frequently Israel’s attacks on Gaza have not been justifiable under international law, according to the principles cited below, and many others too numerous to list here.

    I was not aware I was required to condemn attacks on civilians. I oppose attacks on civilians, be they Israeli, Palestinian or from anywhere else. This is something I have absolutely no qualms about doing. And I’ve probably done so before on this blog. Indeed my opposition to attacks on civilians in part led me to become seriously concerned with Palestinian rights, and also contributed to my support for BDS. It is telling from your side that you even raise questions about that, as if I had ever stated anything hinting at any kind of support for violence in tens of comments on this blog.



  7. Ralph Seliger April 9, 2014 at 9:52 pm - Reply

    It should be easy for all of us to oppose attacks on civilians, but I’m glad to see Ted join us in doing so. I don’t recall his comments as ever focusing on Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

    As for my friend and colleague, Gil:
    I’m not contending that Gaza is “independent,” but to argue that it’s “occupied” in the same way that East Jerusalem or the West Bank are, is logically flawed, regardless of the technical legal issue. And although Israel is overly punitive in its control over crossings into Israel and Gaza’s access to the Mediterranean, it is justified on the basis of self-defense to exercise substantial control over access to and egress from a territory governed by an overtly hostile authority.

    If I read this Wikipedia article correctly, since there are five crossings into the Gaza Strip, with Israel totally controlling three and the remaining two being into Egypt, contending that Israel controls “virtually all” legal entry into Gaza is an overstatement.

  8. Anonymous April 10, 2014 at 11:08 am - Reply

    Dear Ralph,

    I am honestly disappointed to point out these types of issues yet again, but it seems rather willfully negligent on your part to fail to note or recognize that Gaza also has an ocean along it’s entire length, and it also has airspace above it. Both those are 100% controlled by Israel. In normal situations, for people other than Palestinians, people’s rights to movement are not limited only to land.

    Additionally, Israel imposes a buffer zone, which last I remember, ranges from 300 – 800 meters INSIDE the (unoccupied!) Gaza Strip (except on the much smaller border with Egypt). While not minimizing Egypt’s agency and interests, Israel has also used all its leverage for years to push Egypt to limit Palestinian movement, and it currently does so. Until some relatively recent year, I’ve forgotten exactly when, Egypt was formally submitting names and ID’s to Israel and getting Israeli agreement before allowing people to cross, as part of an agreement brokered by the US. This system was functional in 2006 and stopped functioning in some subsequent year.

    But glad that you found that wikipedia page!



  9. Ralph Seliger April 10, 2014 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    As I’ve indicated repeatedly, I consider Israel’s treatment of the Gaza Strip overly harsh and punitive.
    But it’s not unprovoked, a point that Ted never acknowledges. I would favor any easing of Israel’s siege of this hostile area consistent with its security.

  10. Anonymous April 10, 2014 at 5:46 pm - Reply

    Dear Ralph,

    Again, your reasoning a bit bizarre, and sounds like it came from the Jerusalem Post. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Gaza in 1948 and they’ve lived there since. Gaza has been held under Israeli occupation for 47 years, been impoverished, bulldozed multiple times from Ariel Sharon’s early days onward. Now it is besieged, isolated and even further impoverished. And Gaza is the “hostile area,” as opposed to Israel!


  11. Ralph Seliger April 10, 2014 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    Ted knows that we don’t deny his recitation of Palestinian (and Gazan) woes. But he argues again that it’s always a one-way street, as if there were no repeated attacks and years of attempts at more attacks on Israeli civilians. The consequences of continuing “armed struggle” after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 have been terrible indeed.

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