A debate on the lobby…


… or close to it. Itamar Rabinovich, Roger Cohen, Rashid Khalidi and Stuart Eizenstat are debating the proposition that "The U.S. should step back from its relationship with Israel" on Feb. 9 at New York’s Skirball Center, under the aegis of the Intelligence Squared debate series.

I’ve written before about a putative such debate between John Mearsheimer and the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris. In truth, I’ve dreaded that debate — not because of who might win or lose, but because it would be frustrating. Harris is a fine and knowledgable speaker, but bound by his organizational mantle. Mearsheimer is bound, well, by ignorance that apparently knows no bounds. It would be like a real life version of the Macy’s guy debating the nut who thinks he’s really Kris Kringle.

These guys, on the other hand, have been actual players and know their stuff. I’ve interviewed Rabinovich, a former ambassador to the United States and former top negotiator with Syria, and Eizenstat, a senior adviser in the carter and Clinton administrations, and each man has the quality of intently assessing a question in real time, and not avoiding ugly answers. In other words, they’re straight talkers and good listeners — what you want in a debate. They’re making the case against.

Khalidi, a former PLO spokesman and negotiator who knows Barack Obama, unfortunately would not take Martin Kramer’s bait during 2008 the election on whether Khalidi favors two states or one. (It was relevant because Obama and Khalidi had been close.) I say unfortunately, because Khalidi in the past has also proven a blunt but intelligent analyst; he knows Israel, he knows its defenders and he knows their weaknesses. The same could be said of Kramer and the Palestinians. It would have been fun, and now it may yet be, albeit absent Martin.

Cohen, the New York Times columnist, has been lithe enough to admit his mistaken assessment of the Iranian regime and to correct it — and to emerge not only unscathed, but to persuasively recalibrate his consistent arguments against heightened confrontation with the regime.

Still, my one caveat is with Cohen: His columns, whether about Iran, China, Israel, wherever, are replete with notions of national "character." ("Proud, stubborn, intelligent, hospitable," etc.) This is unfortunately still common among some globetrotters, and I hate it to a fault: It is two clicks away from bad jokes about French lovers, Jewish doctors and Swiss clockmakers and four or five clicks away from something much more sinister. More to the point of what makes a good debater, it is lazy and fatuous: I hope he avoids these stereotypes.

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