Weiner-Baird debate lived up to its billing

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Last night at the New School in New York, we had a great debate between two Democratic Party antagonists on the Israel/Palestine issue: Brian Baird, the former Washington state congressman, and Brooklyn congressman Anthony Weiner. The conversation was deftly moderated by Roger Cohen of the New York Times, who was not afraid to call Weiner out when the congressman said there are no Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, or when he said that all the settlements are in Israel.

The chief response to the debate so far (besides the predictable at the National Review) has been shock at Anthony Weiner’s contempt for international law and Palestinian humanity. A politician who has distinguished himself on healthcare reform and economic justice issues in the U.S. resorts to “It’s war, and war is hell” arguments when Brian Baird, a clinical psychologist by training, describes the destruction of schools and innocent families and U.N. compounds by Israeli bombing, and the collective punishment of millions of people denied lentils, toothpaste, building materials, and the freedom to move beyond a territory less than the size of New York City.  

When Cohen pressed Weiner on where Israel’s eastern border is, he said something about the Jordan River. I have the tape– I have to dig that out. At this point a man in the audience shouted, Are you in Israel now? It was a New York crowd. A heckler from the other side attacked Brian Baird over his statement that the Israelis had bombed Al Quds hospital with white phosphorus. The heckler said that there were militants hiding themselves at the hospital. Baird (a contributor to our book on the Goldstone Report) shook his head in consternation. He said it was no credit to the heckler or the country he was supporting that he was actually defending the bombing of a hospital.

Writes one friend who was in attendance:

what I gathered is something rather surprising: I actually got the impression that Weiner doesn’t really know much about the Israeli Palestinian conflict beyond some basic talking points. Him making a fool of himself claiming there was no occupation in the West Bank or that the border was on Jordan River are gaffes that an actual advocate for Israel in America was not likely to make. It suggests to me that Weiner is just badly informed and that his attachment to Israel is rather shallow: he is not really thinking about Israel beyond some ideal he has known ever since growing up in Brooklyn.

Writes another friend:

To my surprise, I learned something from tonight’s debate.  I thought about Anthony Weiner’s insistence that the borders of Israel extend from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River — a shocking statement to me even though I know this is the viewpoint of the settler movement in Israel.  I didn’t realize that it was the common currency of a “proud Zionist” as Weiner described himself.  So, if Weiner and his ideological pals believe that all the land taken in the 1967 war is “Israel”, no wonder negotiations can go nowhere even with the ever pliable Palestinian Authority.  Weiner and his pals believe negotiations are “giving” land to the Palestinians — an offer of any territory at all is a generous offer.  And to hell with the UN resolutions establishing the state of Israel and its borders, and even to hell with the Israeli juridical position that the land is disputed territory.  Does this mean that Israel no longer claims its legitimacy from the 1947 UN partition resolution?  Mondo bizarro. 

And here is Peter Belmont’s take on Weiner’s “brainwashing” from his blog:

I went into the event in general agreement with what I took to be Baird’s (and, I suppose, Cohen’s) position (that the Goldstone Report was accurate and its findings reliable as to facts and as to law). I heard nothing to make me reconsider my opinion.

On the other hand, I heard much to lower my opinion of the standards for factual accuracy (or is it honesty?), legal acumen, and evenhanded judgment on the part of Congressman Weiner that I took with me going into the hall. Perhaps I was naïve.

A few highlights.

Baird, who had visited Gaza to see the damage from the 2008-2009 Israeli onslaught there (which the Goldstone Report concluded to have constituted, in part, possible war-crimes), opened by remarking that the Congress had overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the Goldstone Report without discussing it, without holding hearings on it, and without asking himself and a few others in Congress who had visited Gaza for any information they might have acquired first-hand on the subject. It was one of those don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts Congressional votes—and one for which Weiner voted. Weiner did not dispute Baird’s characterization of Congressional process in this matter.

The Congress had somehow concluded (the “how” was not disclosed last night—one may surmise that AIPAC had a hand in developing and ripening this “conclusion”) that the Goldstone Report was, to the extent it contained anti-Israeli conclusions, biased, unreliable, and its allegations (in the nature of an indictment) of war-crimes and crimes-against-humanity assessed against Israel were incorrect and not worthy of being acted upon judicially.

No-one said a word about Judge Goldstone’s reputation as a jurist. Or as a Zionist. Weiner appeared to base his conclusion that the report was biased upon the possibly correct idea that the UN Human Rights Commission which sponsored Goldstone’s work, was itself biased. He ignored the possibility that a good man could do a good job even if the job was offered by a biased crowd.

(Off topic, here, but the USA’s veto of a pro-Palestinian (draft) resolution in the UNSC—for which UK, Germany, Russia, China, and every other country which voted at all voted in favor of—a resolution which expressed ideas the USA has often espoused itself—shows that an ill-intentioned entity can do a bad job, even when the job is offered by a good crowd.)

Weiner appeared to have concluded that the Report’s allegations of possible war-crimes against Hamas were, to the contrary, satisfactorily grounded. How he came to that conclusion—if indeed he did come to that conclusion—was not disclosed.

The issue of “intent” arose, Weiner claiming that various military acts taken by Israel weren’t war-crimes because their intent was not criminal. This discussion was unsatisfactory to me, because there was no elucidation of which acts were crimes per se and which were crimes only if, for instance, they were attacks lacking an intent to damage enemy combatants or war-fighting capacity. All questions of a requirement of “proportionality” were, likewise side-stepped.

There was discussion of the Israeli siege or boycott of Gaza. Weiner said it was OK as a long-continuing act of war, Israel and Gaza (or Hamas as government of Gaza) being, he said, at war. Baird asked if a boycott of “lentils” and ‘tomato paste” and “toothpaste” was allowed as part of a war-based boycott. Weiner seemed to think so.

Baird asked about Israeli destruction (by bombing, shelling, missiles) of an industrial zone in Gaza which had nothing to do with the “war”. Weiner said it was OK to destroy anything in a war, and pointed out that Israel had dropped leaflets on civilian residences announcing impending bombardment so the civilians could get out, as evidence if Israeli morality. I do not remember any discussion of whether or not there was anywhere for such civilians to go which would be safe from bombardment, shooting, etc.

The back-and-forth dragged on, and I got tired of listening.

At a certain point, 45 minutes to an hour into the proceedings, Weiner said that Gaza was not occupied territory and that there were no Israeli troops in the “West Bank” (a phrase which he appeared to intend, at this moment, to designate the part of the occupied West Bank east of the Israeli “separation” or “apartheid” wall).

Congressman Weiner appeared to use language in a very different way than I am used to hearing (or reading) it used, either in a deliberate attempt to mislead us, his audience of the moment, with knowingly false statements or else in a perfectly innocent expression of “received” ideas which he did not know enough to question, ideas which I judge him to have “received” from people who were using knowingly false statements with the intention of misleading their audience, including the Honorable Congressman.

In any case, I saw no point to remaining and rose from my seat in the third row of a large auditorium, and walked out.

I hope Baird and Cohen found a way to rescue this “conversation”, so very much at cross-purposes as to facts and law. Perhaps they took a deeper look at the question of whether or not Gaza is “occupied” territory. Or at whether “collective punishment” by a 4-year blockade, on its face forbidden as an element of belligerent occupation, is permitted as an incident of non-occupational war—and other interesting questions of law.

If one takes the view that Congressman Weiner held all his ideas honestly, one sees that the power of the Lobby is much more than some thought—going, on this view, beyond mere arm-twisting all the way to brain-washing Congressmen. For my own part, I am well persuaded that Congressman Weiner’s performance last night was an attempt to brain-wash his audience, and I am less concerned about whether he was an innocent or a witting participant in this attempt which, either way, may be presumed to have originated with AIPAC and the rest of The Lobby.

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