Dershowitz: Obama needs hard line on Iran to win Israeli support
'Mistrust of Barack Obama will make it more difficult to persuade Israelis to take risks for peace.'
Law professor Alan Dershowitz, a well-known attorney in the American legal world, has made a name for himself representing celebrity clients such as O.J. Simpson, Jonathan Pollard and Mike Tyson. His lectures are seen as some of the most fervent speeches made in Israel's defense, while his books, including "The Case for Israel," have become bestsellers - particularly among Israel's supporters. He also played a pivotal role in attacking Justice Richard Goldstone's report on last year's Israeli offensive into Gaza.
Dershowitz traveled last week from Harvard University to Washington to participate in the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He also followed the clash unfolding between Barack Obama, his president, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of his favorite client, with concern.
How do you interpret the cool to frosty reception Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received at the White House?
It's clearly part of the Obama administration's strategy to increase pressure on Israel. After all, they praised Netanyahu's offer to end building in the West Bank, without him committing to ending building in parts of Jerusalem certain to remain an integral part of Israel under any agreement. In the White House they think they can have more influence on Israel than on the Palestinians. But this seems to be backfiring, because the Palestinians now believe they can demand more and more pre-conditions for starting talks. What Obama has to realize is that he is dealing with Israel, a democracy to which you can not always dictate specific terms. Israel can't make peace without the clear support of the United States. The Israeli voters supported Ehud Barak's very generous offers in 2000/2001 largely because they trusted Bill Clinton. Mistrust of Barack Obama will make it more difficult to persuade Israelis to take risks for peace.
Obama is surrounded by Jewish advisors who understand how Israel works, and even has a senior advisor with an Israeli background.
The fact that Obama has advisors who are Jewish simply gives him a better cover to be tough on Israel. On the other hand, he doesn't have close Palestinian advisors who are familiar with the other side. I'm afraid this is bringing the parties further apart rather than closer together.
Could the rift between the administration in Washington and the Israeli government cause a split in the Jewish community, between Obama's supporters and supporters of Israel?
No - the Jewish community is solidly behind Israel on security issues and largely behind Israel on building in Jewish neighborhoods in North Jerusalem that will remain part of Israel in any agreement. On the other hand, the issue is lessening support for Obama among Jewish supporters of Israel.
If you were Netanyahu's attorney, how would you advise him to end this crisis?
I would suggest that he make the following announcement: "We do not believe that new building in Jewish sections of Jerusalem is a barrier to peace. We believe that the Palestinian's unwillingness to engage in unconditional direct talks, coupled with their unwillingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, is the primary barrier to peace. To prove our point, and without waving any rights in Jerusalem, we will announce a three-month suspension of all building permits in all disputed areas of Jerusalem in order to see whether that brings the Palestinians to the peace table and whether they are prepared to engage in good faith direct negotiations. If the Palestinians will then be prepared to engage in good faith direct negotiations, the suspensions will continue until the negotiations are complete. If not, we will return to the status quo."
That would be a test of the Palestinians' good will - a test I hope they will pass, but believe they will fail.
How would you advise Obama?
I would tell him that the process cannot be unilateral and that there must be mutual concessions. For example, the Obama administration has falsely blamed the naming of a Ramallah square after a terrorist who murdered Jews on Hamas, rather than on the Palestinian Authority. The Obama administration has to make as substantial demands of the Palestinians as it does of the Israelis. If you think this crisis is severe, you should know it is nothing compared to what could happen with regard to the Iranian issue at some future date. I'm afraid [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is one of the happiest men these days thanks to the many incidents between the United States and Israel. [PA Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas, by the way, is also pretty happy.
Would you disagree that this crisis - along with earlier ones and ones that will likely follow - stems from the Israeli settlement policy?
I believe that if Israel were to put an end to the settlements in the West Bank tomorrow, as it did in Gaza, there would still be reluctance on the part of the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish secular democracy. Accordingly, the settlements should not be a major cause of disagreement between Israel and the United States, despite their differences over this issue. Nonetheless, I hope Israel will stop building in the West Bank and in those sections of Jerusalem which are likely to become part of a Palestinian state.
I am deeply concerned that, without peace and a two-state solution, the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel is in danger. That's why I have opposed Israel's settlement policy since 1973, and that's why I have favored a two-state solution since 1967.
Do you believe that Obama is a friend of Israel and is truly committed to his promise not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons?
I believe Barack Obama is committed to Israel's security. He is also committed to the two-state solution and the peace process.
I hope he understands that unless Israelis - and the rest of the world - believe that he will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, many Israelis will be unwilling to take significant risks for peace. I will remain committed to Obama so long as he continues to support Israeli security unequivocally. Obama's historic legacy will be based on whether he succeeds in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. If such weapons are obtained on his watch, history will remember him as it remembers Neville Chamberlain, despite anything else he might achieve in terms of domestic American policy.
You've made no secret about your criticism of the left-wing Jewish organization J Street. Why are you so disturbed by Jews who support peace?
I am a peace supporting Jew. I think J Street performs an important function, as it represents many left-leaning young Jews. My criticism is that it would be better if they work within the context of AIPAC. The pro-Israel lobby could then speak with one voice, especially during a time of conflict between the United States and Israel, and especially on undisputed issues - like Iran, responding to rocket attacks, anti-terrorism measures, etc. I myself have had significant disagreements with the Israeli government on a number of issues, such as the settlements. At the same time, I emphasize the 80 percent of Israeli policies that have widespread support across the political spectrum. When I wrote "The Case For Peace," my book received endorsements from prime minister Ariel Sharon and [writer] Amos Oz, because I dealt with the agreed 80 percent. J Street, on other hand, tends to focus on the 20 percent, where there is significant disagreement. That is perfectly okay for an Israeli newspaper, like Haaretz, or for Israeli domestic organizations. But it weakens pro-Israel advocacy considerably, particularly at a time when the pro-Israel community in the United States must continue to pressure the Obama administration to de-escalate this conflict.
Can you describe what happened when you debated the representative from J Street at the AIPAC conference?
Here is what happened: I was standing with professor Irwin Cotler, the former attorney general of Canada, having a conversation. A gentleman asked me if I would like to be interviewed by the correspondent from Haaretz. I said yes. He then went over to the correspondent and asked her whether she wanted to interview professor Dershowitz. She said yes, asked me several questions, and wrote down the answers on her notepad. She then turned to the J Street representative and asked him whether he had any response, which he then provided. Following that, a polite debate ensued, I did not break into a conversation. The entire episode was videotaped and witnessed by over 100 people.