Middle East Conflict: Dershowitz’s Dodging

On Sunday, February 22, eminent Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz made “The Case for Israel” as part of the weekend’s “Jewbilee.” Dershowitz’s case was not for the real goal in this conflict, the permanent cessation of violence, but for the vindication of Israel. It was not a dialectic but a defense—intended to buck Israel’s share of culpability for the violence onto the Palestinians—delivered in a biased, incomprehensive fashion verging on demagoguery. If this is the message he wishes to disseminate, that Israel is merciful and decorous in its conduct of war, the lesser of two evils, then his efforts are tragically misguided. The world needs fewer defenders of Israel’s reputation and more advocates for common sense and truth, both lacking in the Middle East debate today. Mr. Dershowitz began by warning the young members of the audience of the virulent demonstrations against Israel they were certain to encounter on college campuses. He portrayed himself as a solitary bastion of advocacy for Israel among his professorial peers, an island besieged by the battering tides of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. He encouraged the members of the audience to place popularity on the line for the sake of making the right argument: the case for Israel because—he closed on this note—“the case for Israel makes itself.” Not recognizing many in the audience, I determined most to be Jewbilee attendees from other schools. As such, I anticipated a frank discussion of the situation with receptive listeners who came hoping to learn about their culture and faith so that they could understand and defend them once caught in the impending riptide of anti-Israeli sentiment. But I hold regrets for the pro-Israel students in attendance, for Dershowitz armed them with stones to bounce off the armored flanks of an objective, factual criticism of Israel. When Israel’s most unsettling and frequently discussed transgressions were raised, he repeatedly failed to fully address their most controversial aspects. Dershowitz emphasized his opposition to settlements outside the security fence, and to the security fence itself, but failed to explain why both continue to be built. The government-subsidized communities are often strategically built near valuable resources, namely fresh water, in Palestinian territory which the security fence now extends to claim as de facto Israeli territory. The fence completely surrounds several Palestinian communities, cutting off residents from their land and placing any prospects for passage beyond the towering concrete walls in the hands of unsympathetic Israeli soldiers. The fence is a frequent target of confrontational, deadly demonstrations and a motive for the regular suicide attacks. Dershowitz may see his personal condemnation of the settlements and fence as pardoning himself from blame but it cannot exculpate the nation he defends of its offensive actions, and thus compromises his argument. Though Israel’s medical exports save millions of lives every year, this benevolence does not redress the hundreds and thousands of victims from both sides treated in their hospitals for wounds incurred by the fighting Israeli policy prolongs. It defies logic to list a nation’s wrongdoings and then wonder why it is assailed, a conclusion someone of Dershowitz’s intellect is easily capable of reaching. He made a couple of interesting comments on Israeli politics, particularly the Knesset, Israel’s representative body, calling the legislature “too democratic.” He then cited a recent poll of Israelis, 85% of whom indicated that they would “do anything for peace.” Understanding that it is hard for a government comprised of so many parties to reach a consensus, how has a desire held by the clear majority of citizens not been able to sway the Knesset? He is correct that Yassir Arafat’s obstinacy over the division of Jerusalem at the 2000 Camp David talks and their consequent failure was an impetus for Israelis to elect the notorious former General Ariel Sharon over the unsuccessful pacifist and incumbent Ehud Barak in 2001. But are we to believe that because of this Arafat, not the Israeli people whose ballots elected Sharon by an unprecedented margin, is responsible for the outcome of the election? Were the Israeli people reduced to pawns in Arafat’s scheme? Certainly not, and such an attempt to legitimize a political outcome that Israelis and the international community alike recognized as likely to incite further violence — and inevitably lead to more Israeli deaths — is an inherently damning argument. It portrays Israel’s vote as a reprisal for Arafat’s rejection of the treaty; another link in the chain of retaliation that has been intertwined with violence for the better part of a century. Israel relinquished an opportunity to bolster its image by breaking the chain and keeping a peace-minded leader in power rather than voting with vengeance. Israel has the organized government, professional army, and recognized statehood that the Palestinian Authority lacks. It also, as Dershowitz’s comments indicate, seems to bear the burden of proof in this situation. If the Israeli people are as committed to peace as they sensibly should be and as Dershowitz insists, they should be inundating their government with demands to make the primary overtures of peace that will gain them international support and allies against the Palestinian terrorists Arafat may or may not have power over, a group that might include the Prime Minister himself. Stopping the construction of settlements and rerouting the security fence to not encircle and partition Palestinian communities or jut out far beyond the Green Line will do much to improve Israel’s image, which, when supported by a broader alliance than just the United States, will save more Israeli lives than the security fence ever can. Israel is a developed, technologically advanced country that contributes respectably to world society, yet has trouble controlling its own. It sits in the unfortunate position of facing a largely amorphous enemy, composed of multiple factions that have conflicting objectives, and suffers the crippling inability to reconcile the agendas of its leaders, its people, and its devoted expatriates and religious brethren. Rather than extolling the virtues of Israel in an attempt to defend its perception abroad, and perpetuating extremist half-truths, a figure like Mr. Dershowitz would be better employed exercising his influence in the matter toward the end of a peaceful resolution to this belated conflict.