Top Jewish-American defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz casually mentions that after his interview with "Globes" he is going to lunch with Tzipi Livni, and later on meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then some other friends.
Dershowitz, who seems to be Israel's eternal defense attorney to the world, has been coming to Israel every year for the past forty years, and tries to meet all his old friends on each visit. Over the years, they have included Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, and today include president Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, Aharon Barak, Avi Dichter, President of the Supreme Court Dorit Beinish, and many others.
It is not hard to see why he has so many friends - he is sharp and intelligent, focused on myriad details, but also speaks simply and straightforwardly. In short, a captivating person.
Globes: Since your last visit, a year ago, do you feel any difference in Israel, where it is standing today?
Alan Dershowitz answers immediately and unhesitatingly. "Yes, yes. I think that the tensions between the Obama administration and Israel have increased. And that's palpable, one can feel it. And a big issue is whether there will be tensions over Israel's security. Whether there will be a crisis involving Iran, or what will happen if Israel has to make other military decisions.
"At the moment, the Obama administration has put pressure only on the settlements and Jerusalem, but not, for example, on the security barrier; not, for example, on the Goldstone report… for the most part, the United States has been a good ally of Israel on security, and a critic on the issue of settlements. Now, for me, that doesn’t pose too much of a problem, because I have been opposed to Israel's settlement policy since 1973.
Is raising the pressure on Israel just a tactic, or is there a real crisis in the relations between Israel and the US?
"I think its tactic at the moment that can turn into a crisis over Iran. I think Iran is the one area where there could be a crisis. If Israel makes the existential decision that there is no choice but to attack the Iranian nuclear reactors, and the United States says no, it would not serve US interests, that could create a major problem."
So the crisis is around Iran, and not really around our relationship with the Palestinian Authority or the peace talks?
"I wouldn’t call that a crisis, I would call that a difference of opinion, and we're going to see some issues. Settlements aren't going to be the big issue. When it comes to a peace process, the big issues are going to revolve around security, they're going to revolve around the Jordan valley, about the nonproliferation issues. There will be security issues. You know, the administration in the United States has announced that, the other day, that Jerusalem will be the last thing on the agenda. And Jerusalem will be an issue, but I was surprised when my friend Bill Clinton told me that during Camp David and Taba, Jerusalem was not a difficult issue, that that was resolved, essentially. The big issue was the right of return, which was not resolved."
So the real issues are not necessarily the ones with the media's attention. Still, the media has a lot of power and it is influencing not only the citizens in the US who will eventually head again to Presidential elections, but also on European countries, which are really becoming more pro-Palestinian as time goes by . Isn't this a dangerous process?
"The media is much more critical of Israel than the average member of the general public. The average member of the general public supports Israel. Even in Europe there is a lot of support for Israel. Not among the left, and not among the academics."
It's not really heard, though.
"It's not heard, and that’s true of American universities too - the most vocal people are the anti- Israel people."
Why is that?
"Because the left, the extremes, are always more vocal than the average majority person…Jews thrive in centrist politics. We've always hated, and have been hated by, the extreme left and the extreme right, and it's always in the interest of Israel and in the interest of the Jewish people to see politics move toward the center."
Our feeling here is that anti-Semitism is just rising as time goes by and it's just getting worse.
"I don't think so. Anti-Semitism has gotten much better in my lifetime."
"When I was growing up in Brooklyn, there was real anti-Semitism - Jews couldn’t get into colleges, couldn’t get into medical schools. I was first in my class at Yale law school, and I was turned down by 32 out of 32 Wall Street firms, because I was Jewish. That's over. There's no real anti-Semitism in the United States except among people like Farrakhan - the extreme black Muslim leader. There's Islamic anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitism is not an acceptable approach in the United States. It is in England. England has always had anti-Semitism, and it still has anti-Semitism…I think that Islamic anti-Semitism has increased dramatically, and I think anti-Zionism had increased, and anti-Zionism sometimes begins to move toward anti-Semitism. When people like Walt and Mearsheimer say Jews have too much power, or Jimmy Carter talks about the Jewish lobby, you begin to see movement from anti-Zionism to possible anti Semitism."
With all the disinformation and lies about Israel in the media, is there legal action we can take against the media, when it publishes lies about Israel?
"I don’t think so. Certainly not in the United States, not in Britain, not in Canada, not in countries that really have free speech rights. You have the right to be wrong, you have the right to your opinion."
You have the right to lie?
"You have the right to lie. Unfortunately, look, the Goldstone report, is just filled with lies, but you can’t stop people from lying by using the courts…If they defame a particular individual you can bring a lawsuit. I've been defamed plenty in my life, and I've never brought a lawsuit, because I think the best way to fight bad speech is good speech. The best way to fight falsehood is truth. And I believe very strongly in the marketplace of ideas, not using the courts to try to decide what's truth."
What do you suggest that Israel do?
"To be much more proactive, to have a better system of responding. I think it's a mistake to have Israel's hasbarah being run by the government. I think the way, for example, the Bank of Israel works - crazy independent - there should be an independent hasbarah group that is not responsible for defending the particular government. The reason I think I am effective defending Israel is I make the 80% case. I don't defend the settlements, I don't defend the use of cluster bombs in Lebanon at the end of the war. I don’t do that. I defend what I think is defensible. I make the 80% case. When I wrote my book, "The Case for Peace", I got blurbs on the back from the prime minister at the time, Sharon, and also Amos Oz. Now when is the last time Amos Oz and Sharon agreed about anything?...But they agreed with my book, because I made the 80% case. I made the case for Israel's security, its right to defend itself, its right to be treated with a single standard, not a double standard, but I didn't get into the settlements, and other issues where there is division. One of the reasons that I disagree with J Street is I emphasize the 80% where we agree and J Street emphasizes the 20% where we disagree…and focuses on the areas of disagreement. I don't think that's effective advocacy."
Is Barack Obama a friend or foe of Israel?
"I think he is a friend of Israel on issues of security. And I think he is a critic of Israel on the issues of settlements. And I think he's made a lot of mistakes in relation to Israel. I don't think the settlements are the biggest barrier to peace. I think the biggest barrier to peace is the Palestinian unwillingness to recognize Israel's right to be a Jewish state and not permit the right of return, … Barack Obama is a friend of Israel, but there'll be a test, the test will come over Iran…You can be a friend of Israel and still oppose the settlements. I know, because I am a friend of Israel, and I oppose the settlements. But you can't be a friend of Israel and require Israel to take existential risks to its own existence through a nuclear armed Iran. That is the line."
Can Israel trust Barack Obama to deal with the Iranian nuclear weapon threat?
"Israel should never trust anybody but itself in any aspect of its own security. Elie Wiesel taught me something that he learned from the Holocaust. He said, 'Always, always trust the threats of your enemies more than the promises of your friends.' And we know what Ahmadinejad would like to do. Israel has to make its own decisions about its security. That's what sovereignty means. Sovereignty means you don't trust another nation to protect your people. You have to make whatever decisions are required to protect and defend your own people."
What does that mean about Israel's role now, with many states calling for nuclear disarmament of the middle east. What should Israel do?
"It's not going to happen. No one in their right mind expects Israel to disarm. Look, let me put two propositions forward, and see if anyone disagrees with them. If Israel's enemies were to lay down their arms, stop terrorism, stop threatening, stop attacking, there'd be peace. That's proposition one. Proposition two: if Israel were to lay down its arms, there would be genocide. Israel cannot be without nuclear power."
Does the world really realize that?
"No, but they have to. They have to."
How is that going to happen?
"The reason why, Barack Obama is too smart to press Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, is the President of the United States should never ask Israel to do something it can't possibly do. On the settlements, you can pressure Israel. Why? Because at least 50% of Israelis don’t favor the settlements. What percentage of Israelis would favor giving up nuclear power? One percent? A half a percent? If you eliminate the Communists, the Arab parties, and some of the professors at the university of Tel Aviv, you would find the answer would be 0%. Nobody in Israel would be, at this point in time, prepared to give up the nuclear deterrent, nuclear ambiguity, whatever the policy is. So you don’t ask a country to do something its not going to do under any circumstances."
With a former finance minister serving a sentence for stealing, the current foreign minister under investigation, a former prime minister on trial in several cases, and a major corruption scandal related to the Holyland project, defending Israel's good name gets that much harder.
"It's terrible, it's terrible. There's no excuse for that. If you become a public official, you have to be beyond reproach, you have to lean over backwards to be absolutely perfect…you cannot even create the appearance of impropriety, and so I do think that Israel has a long way to go to create a culture of non-corruptibility.
"Having said that, there is a problem with the Israeli legal system. Either too many public officials are being indicted, or too few are being convicted. Because the disparity between indictment and conviction, although it's less than it was in past years is still fairly great.
"Israel also has some very tough laws, must tougher than the United States…In the United States there has to be quid pro quo - you have to say to somebody, I will give you ten thousand dollars and you have to vote a certain way or give me a certain thing…That maybe is why we have fewer convictions in the United States. But in Israel, the laws are tough, there is an aura of corruption, and that has to be dealt with."
How does Israel compare to other Western countries?
"It's very hard to know, Israel is a small country, where everybody knows everything, there are no secrets…so I think if anybody does anything questionable, in the end it's going to come out, so I don’t know if there is more corruption in Israel than in the United States, I know there is more visible corruption than in the United States. But there is plenty of corruption in the United States.
"Look, whenever there is money, and public ability to influence money, there is the potential of corruption. In the United States, we have a governor, who's now going to stand trial for trying to sell the seat of Barack Obama in the United States Senate. And they have him on tape saying how much money he can get for selling a Senate seat. I mean, can you get any more corrupt than that? If it's true, maybe it's not true, there's always a presumption of innocence.
Olmert, who is a personal friend of yours, is linked to several scandals - do you believe he is innocent?
"I don't know. I just don't know. I don't know much about the case itself, but I read in the newspaper… I'm going to presume him innocent of any crime. But I think that the perception is something that he should have avoided. He should have gone much further to avoid perceptions. But there's a difference. Perception is a political issue, crime is a different issue. So I'm going to assume, knowing him, that he's innocent of any crime, but no political figure should allow himself ever to be perceived as corrupt. And if you're perceived as corrupt, you've failed politically, you've failed morally. Legally is a different issue."
Dershowitz had read about the ruling that required the government to pay NIS 2 million compensation to a man wrongfully convicted of rape after investigators fabricated evidence against him.
"There is generally a culture among police officers around the world, if you think somebody did it, the goal is to get them convicted, and the process isn't as important. The process is very important to lawyers, its not so important to police," Dershowitz says with the tone of a defense lawyer who has battled that phenomenon.
People have a hard time with the acquittal of guilty people, people that they think are guilty, but they don’t think about people that are innocent and sitting in jail. Why do you think it's like that?
"The concept of 'Better ten guilty go free than one innocent be wrongly convicted' is part of our legal system, so if a guilty person is acquitted, it is not a mistake - in the legal system, we require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But if an innocent person is ever convicted, that's a tragedy, that’s a failure of the system, its much worse…It happens a lot."
You think it happens…
"I wouldn’t say in thousands and thousands of cases, but certainly hundreds and hundreds of cases, in the United States."
Is there still a presumption of innocence?
"Well, in court, there is a presumption of innocence. It doesn't operate outside of court. The same thing is true in the United States. If you were arrested for a crime, everyone assumes you're guilty. By the way, as a criminal defense lawyer, I always presume my client guilty, when I have my first conversation with them they always tell me they're innocent, but my presumption privately in my head is probably they're guilty. If they can prove to me their innocence, fine, but if not, I am going to treat them as if they are guilty. I am not going to consent to a search, I'm not going to let them be interviewed by the police, I'm going to treat them..it's like a doctor - you come in to an emergency room and you have chest pains. Should there be a presumption of health? No. you should presume the patient sick. You presume the worst case scenario, and as a criminal lawyer I always presume the worst case scenario, and I would as a doctor.
You would represent a client even if you think he's guilty?
"Oh sure…I would say most of my clients, most of them, have been guilty…many have not been, and often I don't know… I can't get into the heart and soul of my clients.
"I'm looking for evidence of innocence, and in the end, I may conclude that the person is innocent."
In addition to being a goodwill ambassador for Israel, a top defense lawyer for famous clients, and a much in demand professor at universities around the world, Dershowitz is one of the staunchest defenders of human rights, and a dedicated spokesman on behalf of Israel in its battles against terror and Hizbullah's aggression. This is all while calling on Israel to leave the territories of Judea and Samaria, and to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.
How do you perceive human rights in Israel?
"Israel's record on human rights is better than any other countries facing comparable threats. I give it a B-."
Is a B- good?
"No, it's not good. But B- is the highest grade. There's no country that gets better than B-, in terms of the comparable threats that Israel faces. The great failing of the Goldstone report, and the criticism of Israel, is nobody ever says to Israel 'Here's what you should have done'. Here you have rockets coming in, you have people in Sderot, they have to live in shelters, everybody has traumatic stress syndrome…the rockets are now reaching Ashkelon, Ashdod - what should Israel have done? And until you can tell Israel what was the proper thing to have done within human rights, you can't say to it what it did was wrong.
"Do I think there were too many civilian casualties? Yes…I would hope that the next time, if there has to be a next time, when Israel has to take military action like this, it could increase its ability to protect civilians…Israel should go to great steps to try to increase the use of other forms of munitions, other rules of engagement, to try to improve the situation. But don't let any other country or the United Nations condemn it, unless you can show Israel how it can protect itself in a better way… If you're an Israeli, judge Israel by a perfect standard. If I were a woman in Israel, I wouldn’t sit back and accept the current situation. If I were a gay in Israel, I wouldn’t accept the current situation. If I were an Arab in Israel, I wouldn’t accept the current situation. So Israelis have a right to demand perfection of their own government. But the Vatican doesn't have the right to demand a different standard of Israel than from every other country, in fact less. The Vatican should be demanding better from Catholic countries. It’s a tremendous amount of chutzpah for the Vatican to be telling Israel what to do, while Catholic countries have far worse records on human rights."
Do you still see an importance to the existence of the UN?
"The United Nations today does more harm than good. But I wouldn't want to abolish the United Nations because I think it has the potential for doing a great deal of good. The current secretary general of the United Nations is a very good person, and he sees some of the problems. But if you could abolish the Human Rights Council - the Human Rights Council is a Human Wrongs Council. It’s a Human Lefts Council. It has nothing to do with human rights. It’s a hijacking of the human rights agenda. And I have devoted my life to human rights. I want to see human rights thrive. And the first thing we should do is abolish the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. The United States made a mistake in joining it. It should be boycotting it, it should play no role."
Do you personally, in your heart, believe that Israeli-Palestinian relations can be amended?
"Yes, I do. In fact, I believe that there is a substantial chance that the right elements are in line. I think that the Netanyahu government, and the Obama government, despite their tensions, may be the right mix to bring about a viable peace… I would like to see a peace that is better than the peace with Egypt, I would like to see a peace that is even better than the peace with Jordan. Is that possible? I think Israelis and Palestinians have an enormous amount in common. I think that the idea of a viable West Bank state, where you can share medical technology, high technology, is more than a dream. Herzl said it, if you will it, it can happen. I have great optimism that the possibility of peace with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank is possible. Gaza is a very different situation…I'm not optimistic about Gaza, and I have some long term pessimism about Egypt. I'm not sure after Mubarak how long Egypt will be able to maintain its existence as a secular...moderate, reasonable state.
"So there, you know, there will never be complete, complete, total peace for Israel, or for the Jewish people. To be a Jew means to always have to look over - once it's your right shoulder, when it's Nazism, once its your left shoulder, when its communism. Jews are destined to live in interesting times. And Israel is the Jewish nation, and the Jew among nations. It will never have complete peace, it will never be able to give up, I believe, its qualitative military superiority. "
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on May 13, 2010
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2010