Alan Dershowitz is a lifelong Democrat who sees himself as very much a liberal. Even in terms of Israel, he touts his professed support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians and contends that expanding West Bank settlements are a bad idea. He has suffered for this with insults and heckling at predominantly right-wing gatherings, such as organized by the Jerusalem Post in New York, two years ago.
Although his arguments did not prevail, his overlarge ego dominated his debate with Peter Beinart at the Manhattan JCC, Sept. 3, on the Iran nuclear agreement. Beinart listened in some astonishment and chagrin as Dershowitz invented his own facts in attacking the Iran deal. By way of contrast, I’ve never heard Beinart argue more fluently and confidently.
Their major point of contention was in how thorough and prolonged are the agreement’s provisions to safeguard against an Iranian bomb. Dershowitz tends to argue by selectively quoting (or misquoting) Pres. Obama to the effect that it’s only a ten-year deal, rather than 15 to 25, with Iran’s commitment to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty binding it “in perpetuity,” as Beinart contends.
Dershowitz’s liberalism on Middle East issues is more theoretical than real. His instincts are to excuse if not support virtually all Israeli government actions. And so he made it clear that he sympathizes with Netanyahu in his highly public disputes with Obama. In this connection, Dershowitz cited a metaphor attributed to J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami, characterizing his organization as a “blocking back” for Obama, thereby denigrating J Street as “pro-Obama” rather than “pro-Israel.”
Although he’s debated Ben-Ami as well as Beinart in the past, Dershowitz later hinted at a wounded ego, complaining that J Street has never invited him to one of their national conferences. (Evidently, this is a familiar trope; J Street advisory council member Larry Gellman wrote this Times of Israel blog post over a week before the JCC event: “Alan Dershowitz, stop whining and come to J Street as my guest.”)
He revels in lawyerly arguments that distort the truth. One whopper was his claim that Obama does not like “tough Jews,” alleging that Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers were “fired” within six months. (You see, Netanyahu is also “one tough Jew”; get it?)
Actually, Emanuel served as White House chief of staff for nearly two years, from January 20, 2009 – October 1, 2010. He left this high-pressure/high turnover job to pursue his ambition to become mayor of Chicago. As for Summers, he served as director of the National Economic Council for nearly one year, from January 20, 2009 – December 31, 2010.
Moderator Jane Eisner (The Forward’s editor-in-chief) brought out a contradiction in Dershowitz’s position on the Iran deal. Even in his just-authored instant book against the agreement, she noted that he concedes that although it’s a very bad deal in his view, the repercussions of defeating it now may make things worse. He argued defensively that there was no contradiction. Later, in connection with Eisner’s attempt to rein in the discussion — so that the audience, seated together at tables, could submit their written questions and discuss the issue among themselves — Dershowitz rudely accused Eisner of being “an unfair moderator.”
As for the agreement itself, the details are complicated, especially insofar as various provisions sunset at 10, 15 and 25 year intervals. This makes for confusion and honest misinterpretation. Iran’s bad behaviors in the neighborhood, and its hostile rhetoric — especially toward Israel and the United States, and still ongoing after the agreement has been signed — make heated debate inevitable.
I agree with Dershowitz over Beinart on at least one matter: opinion polls. Beinart cites one survey of American-Jewish opinion that shows a 19 point edge in favor of the deal over those opposed, while Dershowitz sees the polls as contradictory and inconclusive. But Beinart is correct that American-Jewish national organizations, and especially a number of community federations, are unrepresentative in opposing the deal — but not necessarily because most Jews support it, as he contends. Dershowitz agreed in a back-handed way, saying it’s a fair question as to whether such organizations, especially if they are umbrella groups, should be taking a stand for or against. Even if Beinart is factually correct that Jews support the agreement by a margin of nearly 60-40, this still leaves the community heavily divided.
A final note: Dershowitz styles himself as an expert on almost everything. A rich slice of his egotism was illustrated by his claim that every time he goes to Israel he’s invited to meet with defense and security officials to discuss strategy. Really? I’d be fascinated to learn what Israel’s military and security establishment have to learn from General Dershowitz.
[To watch the debate online, click on this web link: IranDealForum.fora.TV]