Alan Dershowitz vs. David Solway on Obama and Israel

A battle over whether the U.S. president is a true friend of Israel.

Below is an exchange that Frontpage hosted between David Solway and Alan Dershowitz on the subject of Obama and Israel:

Et Tu, Dershowitz?
By David Solway

A year and a half ago, I posted an article on this site expressing my skepticism of Alan Dershowitz’s insights into American politics and questioning his bias in favor of President Obama and the Democratic party. I wrote there: “when it comes to the international figure who may well be the most serious threat to Israel’s well-being and perhaps even to its survival—by whom I mean not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but Barack Obama—Dershowitz’s pen tilts to the “sinister” side of the page as he no doubt meditates his still unwritten The Case for Obama.” I pointed out that Dershowitz does not so much as notice what National Post columnist George Jonas called “the malodorous miasma of gall, social engineering zeal, anti-Semitism and Arabist agenda that emanates from the Obama administration.” Mark Steyn probably said it best: “I suppose it’s conceivable that there are a few remaining suckers out there who still believe Barack Obama is the great post-partisan, fiscally responsible, pragmatic centrist he played so beguilingly just a year ago.”

True to form, Dershowitz has just published a column in The Jerusalem Post in which he declares his support for Obama as the president who is “best for America and for the world,” and, of course, for Israel. As a trained and practiced lawyer, he proceeds to marshal the evidence for his case. But as critical readers, we must see that the evidence is, to put it mildly, unpersuasive, if not disturbingly misleading.

Dershowitz argues that Obama is “a pragmatic, centrist liberal who has managed—with some necessary compromises—to bring us the first important healthcare legislation in recent history, appointed excellent justices to the Supreme Court, supported women’s rights, eliminated the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, maintained the wall of separation between church and state [and] kept up an effective war against terrorism.”

Well, let’s see. A “pragmatic, centrist liberal” is, by all reasonable counts, precisely what Obama is not. His record and his antecedents show beyond the slightest doubt that he is a far-left ideologue who wishes to “fundamentally transform” America into a redistributionist welfare state on the failing European model. The “excellent judges” he has appointed to the Supreme Court include Sonia Sotomayer (of “wise Latina” fame) and Elena Kagan, who did not recuse herself when voting for the Affordable Care Act, though she had “participated as ‘counselor or advisor’ of the law when she was solicitor general, and…is clearly not impartial about the fate of ObamaCare.” Obama’s support of women’s rights is arguable and many disapprove of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, but we can leave these issues to debate and opinion. As for the separation of Church and State, the Catholic Church would surely not agree following the contraception flap. His “effective war against terrorism” consists of scrubbing terms like “Islam” and “jihad” from U.S. security documents and inviting the Muslim Brotherhood, in the person of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, to the White House. (The hunting down of Osama bin Laden was already in progress during the tenure of the previous administration.)

“President Obama has kept his promises,” Dershowitz avers. But Obama’s broken promises are legion, whether it is his promise to close Guantanamo, to reverse President Bush’s anti-terrorist policies, to establish “an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” to constrain the lobbying industry, to create five million more energy jobs and keep unemployment under 8 percent, to bring down health care premiums, to halve the deficit by the end of his first term (the 2013 budget envisions a deficit of more than $1 trillion)—the list is nigh endless.

Dershowitz is proud of his president for having visited the embattled Israeli town of Sderot during his candidacy run—when he needed to ensure the support of American Jews for his White House bid. But since being sworn into office, Obama has not visited Israel once, though he has graced Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia with his presence. He has callously snubbed Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu while befriending Turkey’s Islamist despot Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “And when the IDF finally had to respond to the rocket terror with Operation Cast Lead,” Dershowitz preens, “President Obama supported Israel’s actions and his administration condemned the Goldstone Report.” But as Roger Simon points out, such criticism “was tepid at best. Indeed, the administration ended up criticizing that pernicious and dishonest report on the Gaza conflict less stringently than Judge Goldstone himself, who finally renounced it after being confronted with obvious facts he chose to ignore.”

As Dershowitz recognizes, the defense partnership between the U.S. and Israel has gained strength. Nevertheless, what Dershowitz refuses to mention is that Obama has worked assiduously against Israeli interests in the faux negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, insisting on the indefensible 1967 borders as an initial bargaining position, requiring few if any concessions of the Palestinians while demanding that Israel terminate its housing projects, even in East Jerusalem, regarding the unelected and corrupt Mahmoud Abbas as a partner for peace, and pledging $400 million in aid to the Hamas terrorist regime in Gaza.

Dershowitz tells us the obvious, that “the greatest threat Israel faces today is from Iran,” and praises Obama for announcing “that his policy is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it takes military action to do so. In the meantime, he has ratcheted up sanctions and diplomatic pressure while explicitly keeping the military option on the table.” In fact, despite all the media hype, Obama has been notoriously reluctant to impose sanctions with teeth and his assurances of military support are highly suspect. Indeed, Obama (and the State Department) have appeared to do everything in their power to dissuade Israel from responding to the Iranian threat of extermination, from leaking information about Israel’s military plans to warning against “loose talk of war” with Iran and calling on Israel to allow time for (clearly fruitless) sanctions to take effect.

“I am confident,” Dershowitz concludes, “that President Obama will keep his promise ‘always [to] have Israel’s back’ in the face of the continuing threats posed by Israel’s enemies.” With the exception of the predictable Left, very few Israelis share his confidence. And with the exception of America’s liberal Jewish constituency, perhaps a majority of Americans do not either. My own conclusion is that the lawyer who naively takes presidential rhetoric for accomplished truth, and who does not hesitate to inform us that he was an invitee to the Oval Office “to discuss Iran strategy,” is not to be trusted.

Dershowitz responds: In a destructive effort to turn support for Israel from a bipartisan issue into a wedge issue between Republicans and Democrats, several right wing Republicans have criticized Jewish liberals, including me, for supporting President Obama.  In doing so, they risk turning the 2012 election into a referendum over Israel, in which they claim their vote for the Republican nominee is a vote for such support and a vote for the Democrat is a vote against such support. They never pause to consider the implications of such a "referendum."  What if the Democrats win?  What if Obama, who is leading in all the critical polls, is reelected?  Does that mean that Israel has lost the referendum?  Does that mean that the long bipartisan history of support for Israel has ended?

It is important that Republicans support Israel and that Democrats support Israel. It is important for both candidates to campaign for the votes of Jewish supporters of Israel and it is critically important that the bipartisan support for Israel be maintained.  That is why both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak went out of their way this week to praise the Obama Administration’s support for Israel’s security, following their meetings with both Mitt Romney and Leon Panetta.

In some Western European countries, national elections are indeed referenda over support for Israel, with conservative parties tending to be far more supportive of Israel than left wing parties. That has never been the case in the United States.  Israel's strongest supporters have always included liberal Democrats, such as Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Mario Cuomo, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid—with some exceptions, such as Jimmy Carter.  They have also included conservative Republicans—also with some exceptions such as Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul.

Over the years, I have agreed with some of the policies of Republican presidents and some of the policies of Democratic presidents.  I have also disagreed with the policies of presidents from both parties.  Since President Obama's election in 2008, I have disagreed with some of his actions and policies with regard to Israel, while agreeing with many others.  Since I myself have been a strong opponent of Israeli settlement policies since the early 1970s, it should come as no surprise that I agree with both Republican and Democratic presidents who have been critical of these policies.  I have also been critical of both former President George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama when they have not been tough enough on Iran.  And I have criticized every American president since 1948 who has refused to recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

I will continue to be critical of policies with which I disagree and supportive of policies with which I agree, without regard to the political affiliation of the president. I will vote for the presidential candidate who I believe is best for America and for the world, and in making that calculation I will consider their policies toward Israel because I believe that strong support for Israel's security is good for America and for the world. And I will try my best to see that support for Israel's security remains a bipartisan issue, despite destructive efforts of some to make such support a wedge issue and the election a referendum that Israel could lose.

Solway: As I wrote in 2009, commenting on Professor Dershowitz’s well-publicized debate with Melanie Philips, who had expressed her suspicions regarding President Obama’s intentions toward Israel, it is hard to believe how erudite intellectuals  ho write with precision, flair, and lucidity can nevertheless lend their support to Barack Obama.

Professor Dershowitz argued then, and does so now, that Israel should not be allowed to become a “wedge issue” in the upcoming elections. But as I contended then, and do so now, he appears unwilling to recognize, as Philips did, that support for Israel does not divide along the right-left axis but is primarily a moral issue. Israel already has considerable bipartisan support. What is needed is not more subtle argumentation to justify the president’s volatile strategy for resolving the Middle East imbroglio or a sagacious caution to avoid polarization. What is needed is realism. Tactical prudence, as Jews above all people might have learned by now, is not always effective against a determined adversary.

What is all too readily papered over is that Obama’s reneging on the settlement consensus worked out between Israel and the former American administration, his patently skewed Cairo address that equated the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering and tellingly ignored the historical and continued presence of the Jewish people in the Holy Land, his appointing manifestly anti-Israeli figures like Susan Rice and Samantha Power to positions of official eminence, his well-attested friendships with the virulently anti-Semitic pastor Jeremiah Wright and former PLO spokesman Rashid Khalidi, and his studious avoidance of Israel during his presidential junkets — all this and more does not seem to have had the slightest impact on those of the president’s supporters who affect to be pro-Israel.

Further, there is more at stake than the question of Israel, grave as that might be. I would argue—and have on many occasions on this site and others—that Obama is bad for America, as I briefly tried to indicate in the original article to which Professor Dershowitz has replied. And yet, I cannot see that he has dealt with any of the specific points I made there or countered my arguments, but has merely stated a rather general position. This is unfortunate. For the issue that should concern all of us, whether we are pro-Israel or not, is that a president who has estranged his allies, “reached out” to self-declared enemies, alarmingly inflated the American debt, relied on executive privilege to suppress critical intelligence (“Fast and Furious”), bypassed Congress in his Libyan adventure, subsidized unsustainable Green energy projects at enormous and unrecoverable cost to the taxpayer (Solyndra, etc.), brought legal suit under the auspices of his Department of Justice against states  intent on rationalizing voter rolls and trying to control illegal immigration, and engaged in a policy of redistributionist economics that has failed wherever it has been tried—among many other such transgressions—such a president is a national disaster.

It is not only the future of Israel which is in the crosshairs. It is the destiny of a great republic that is being decided. Professor Dershowitz and I will disagree with respect to what is best for Israel and for America. Such disagreement is entirely legitimate. I would emphasize only, in pursuing the debate, we should scrupulously examine all the evidence that is available to us.

Dershowitz: No president has ever satisfied me with regard to his policies toward Israel.  Every president has refused to do the right thing when it comes to recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  There may be room for disagreement about some parts of Jerusalem that were captured by Israel during its defensive war with Jordan, but there is no room for disagreement about the status of West Jerusalem, where the Knesset, the Israeli Supreme Court, the Prime Minister’s office, and the President’s residence have always been located.  I have been and will remain critical of any president who wrongly believes that recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and placing our embassy there will make it more difficult to achieve peace.

I have also disagreed with presidents, both Republican and Democrat, who have suggested that Israel’s settlement policy is the major barrier to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  The major barrier has always been, and remains, the Palestinians’ unwillingness to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, to renounce their absurd claim to a so-called “right of return,” and to accept reasonable offers from Israel regarding the borders of the West Bank.  Though I oppose Israel’s settlement policy on democratic grounds, I insist that the continuing occupation is largely the result of Palestinian refusal to accept the reasonable compromises offered by Israel. At bottom, therefore, this dispute is more about land than it is about human rights, because the Palestinians can secure their human rights by being willing to compromise over land, as the Jews did both in 1938, when they accepted the Peel Commission Report, and in 1948 when they accepted the UN Partition Plan.

There have been better and worse presidents when it comes to Israel, some of the best have been Republicans, as have some of the worst.  Some of the best have been Democrats, as have been some of the worst.  No president has been perfect, and no president has been perfectly bad.  (Though Eisenhower may have come close.)

Most presidents have had mixed records. President Reagan, for example, who is often put forward as the model of a pro-Israel president, voted to condemn Israel for its proper decision to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. And President Carter, the model of an anti-Israel president, helped bring about a old peace with Egypt.

I approve of President Obama’s policies on the rights of women, gays and racial and religious minorities. I support his health care bill, his approach to immigration, the environment and taxes, and his judicial appointments. If I believed that his foreign policies endangered Israel’s security, that would weigh heavily on my decision how to vote. But I believe that there would be no major differences between a President Obama and a President Romney when it comes to Israel’s security.

I  will continue to be critical of policies with which I disagree, without regard to the political affiliation of the president. And I will try my best to see that support for Israel's security remains a bipartisan issue, despite the well-intentioned but misguided efforts of some to make such support a wedge issue and the election a referendum that Israel could lose.

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