The Doha Debates, a forum for dialogue and free speech in Qatar, took place in Gaston Hall last night for a discussion entitled “This House believes it’s time for the U.S. administration to get tough on Israel.”
In its first event in the United States since its founding in 2004, moderator Tim Sebastian, founder and chairman of the Doha Debates, was joined by Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset and senior member of the Labor Party, and Michael Scheuer, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Bin Laden Issue Station, affirming. Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and current president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, spoke against the motion.
In his opening remarks, Burg compared relations between the United States and Israel to the relationship of a parent to a child. He stated that, at times, the parent needs to be tough.
“After 100 years of war … it’s about time to say ‘enough.’ It’s about time to say ‘let’s think differently about it,’” he said.
Burg added that the United States needs to push Israel to cooperate with its neighboring countries in order to attain peace in the area.
“It’s about the well-being of the region and the well-being of the world. Israel is — as tiny as it is — a component which impacts and influences so many other systems,” Burg said.
Dershowitz argued that additional pressure on Israel from the United States would result in a weakened Israel that is more susceptible to attack and would ultimately lead to heightened violence in the region.
“Getting tough with an ally may make us feel macho, but it’s a simple-minded solution to a complex and multidimensional problem. We need to be smart with Israel — not tough,” he said.
Dershowitz said that the United States does not have to put pressure on Israel to attain peace, since it is something that Israelis want for themselves. He emphasized the need to continue to provide Israel with military support.
“What’s smart is for the United States [to] take a position that would never compromise on Israel’s security,” Dershowitz said. “What’s really not smart is using words like ‘let’s get tough’ without discerning where this toughness occurs. Saying we’re going to get tough simply weakens Israel in the minds of its enemies.”
Scheuer later challenged the United States’ financial support of Israel.
“We are under attack by Sunnis around the world — an extraordinary threat to the United States internally and externally — and to think that our support for Israel is not a negative in terms of our ability to defend ourselves is a fantasy,” Scheuer said. “As long as we’re supporting Israel, as long as Israel is using our pennies to kill Palestinians. It’s not going to be a good thing for the U.S.”
While Gold also rejected the motion alongside Dershowitz, he focused on how the U.S. stance on Israel will affect other countries in the region, specifically Iran.
“Getting tough on Israel is getting soft on Iran,” Gold said. “People in the Gulf understand that the moment Iran gets nuclear weapons, its revolutionary guard will be emboldened. … People in the Gulf understand that Israel is a sideshow.”
Scheuer’s opinion that the United States should remain indifferent toward Israel was widely viewed as the most extreme standpoint.
“My position is that we shouldn’t care about Israel. We should make them grow up,” Scheuer said. “We have no business bolstering democracy … I don’t think America has any business building democracies anywhere.”
Following their opening remarks, the speakers took questions from the audience on topics ranging from whether or not the conflict is based on religion, to whether individual rights exist in Israel and the viability of a two-state solution. Additionally, at the end of the debate, the audience was given the opportunity to electronically vote on which argument they thought was stronger.
With a result of 63 percent to 37 percent, last night’s attendees ultimately voted in favor of the motion that the United States should take a stronger stance in its relationship with Israel.
Students attending the event had mixed reactions. Senior Matt Smallcomb (COL ’09) said he thought the argument was too vague for debate and the debate itself was poorly executed.
“First of all, it wasn’t a substantive discussion. Second of all, I think it’s a huge shame that the people arguing the affirmative were so weak,” Smallcomb said. “I think there’s definitely merit to the affirmative argument, but the fact that an overwhelming number of people in the audience voted for the affirmative [given that the argument was weak] demonstrated that people showed up with an idea in mind and were just sort of listening in for entertainment.”
Others felt the debate was a valuable learning experience and an opportunity to hear many diverse points of view.
Josh Mogil (SFS ’11) said that he particularly enjoyed listening to the proposals presented by Dershowitz and Burg.
“I thought this well-reasoned debate — with voting at the end — was a wonderful exercise in American democracy,” he said.
“Dershowitz and Burg, despite being on two different sides of the debate, were the winners of the evening,” Mogil said. “They may have been representing opposing viewpoints, but by the end of the debate they were able to look at their common ground and actually come up with a compromise solution to the entire resolve.”
While Dani Isaacsohn (SFS ’11) said he was generally pleased with the debate, he found some of the speakers to be controversial and particularly extreme.
“I think a lot of what Dore Gold said was very dated, and that he was speaking as if it was still 2001 when it’s really 2009. I also thought that Scheuer was radical and reactionary,” Isaacsohn said.
The Doha Debates are sponsored by the Qatar Foundation for Education Science and Community Development. Recent debates have included “This House believes that political Islam is a threat to the West” and “This House believes the Middle East would be better off with John McCain in the White House.”
Last night’s event will air on BBC World News on April 4 and 5.
Read more: Doha Forum Calls for Tougher U.S. Policy on Israel | The Hoya –