By Jonathan Hoffman
February 1, 2013
The motion ‘This House Believes That Israel is a Force For Good in the Middle East’ was defeated 132-208 at the Oxford Union Debating Society last night. It was a good debate with none of the drama that has preceded some other Israel debates at the Union. For example in 2007 most of the external speakers pulled out after Norman Finkelstein was disinvited (the motion was “This House Believes that One State is the Only Solution to the Israel Palestine Conflict” and Finkelstein bizarrely was invited to speak against the motion). It was clear from the quality of the debate that a lot of hard work had gone into the evening by Union President Maria Rioumine and her colleagues.
For the motion were Ella Robertson, a student at Balliol; Alan Mendoza (Director, Henry Jackson Society, replacing Stephen Pollard at very short notice), Richard Perle (Asst Sec of Defence under President Reagan), and Lord David Trimble (Co-founder of Friends of Israel Initiative and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for helping secure peace in N Ireland). Against were Ghada Karmi, Baroness Jenny Tonge, Anna Baltzer (a pro-Palestinian campaigner in the US) and Peter Tatchell.
It’s well nigh impossible to win an Israel debate at a British University so to achieve nearly 40% of the vote is a great achievement. And the speakers for the motion were good. Ella Robertson spoke about Israel’s contribution to stability in the region, to democracy and liberalism and to the economy of the Middle East. Alan Mendoza pointed out that Israel produces weapons of peace eg Iron Dome which was possibly the main reason why the Israeli government did not feel obliged to commit ground forces in Operation Pillar of Defence last year. He contrasted Israel’s liberalism with Gaza where students have recently been forced to wear Islamic dress. Richard Perle suggested that the criticism from the opposition speakers was not criticism of Israel per se but criticism of Israel’s right to defend itself. Israel’s non-aggressive nuclear policy was proved by the fact that Saudi Arabia and Egypt would want a nuclear capability if Iran had one but they have never wanted one to counter Israel’s assumed nuclear capability.
Lord Trimble spoke of his own experience on the Turkel Committee. Cabinet papers had been made available to the Committee and moreover he had seen that all orders placed with Israeli coordinators by merchants in Gaza had been fulfilled. He said that Palestinian negotiators had failed even to respond to Olmert’s peace offer. If Israel was genuinely bent on enlarging its territory – as the opposition claimed - then it would have annexed Judea and Samaria years ago. When asked if they wanted to join a Palestinian State, Israeli Arabs expressed an overwhelming desire to stay in Israel.
From the opponents of the Motion came the usual fallacies:
From Ghada Karmi
-that the Haganah terrorised Arabs into fleeing in 1948 (wrong – as Efraim Karsh has shown, the majority of the Arab refugees did not flee in response to Jewish forces – the Mayor of Haifa even pleaded with them to stay);
-that Israel has ‘caused four wars’!;
-that Israel takes 80% of the water of Judea and Samaria – not true;
From a remarkably restrained Jenny Tonge
-that Islamic extremism is caused by Israel - nonsense, the Muslim Brotherhood – the first extremist organisation – was founded in 1930
Peter Tatchell showed three maps which purported to show that Israel had ‘grabbed land’ but in fact showed that Israel had successfully defended itself three times and had successively moved into more defensible areas. And he said “Jews deserve a homeland but not at the expense of the indigenous people” – but the fact is that Jews are an ‘indigenous people’ with practically unbroken presence near Jerusalem for thousands of years.
From Anna Baltzer we got the ‘apartheid’ comparison – she cited some South African Commission which concluded that Israel practises so-called ‘apartheid’. This of course is The Big Lie – otherwise why would most Israeli Arabs say that they would prefer to live in Israel than in a Palestinian State?
Omar Shweiki, a Palestinian, also spoke with passion against the motion from the floor.
Unfortunately there is not time in these debates to unpick some of the falsehoods. It is that - plus media bias plus the naïve perception of the Palestinians as ‘underdogs – which make motions like these so hard to win, however good the pro-Israel speakers.
But to get nearly 40% support for Israel at a British university in this day and age is a triumph.