|Alan Dershowitz thinks President Barack Obama acted out of personal pique toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.|
Some years ago, Bibi Netanyahu was chatting with the noted criminal lawyer Alan Dershowitz in Israel. He took him aside and asked, in a whisper, “So, did O.J. do it?”
Dershowitz, now retired from Harvard Law School, had joined O.J. Simpson’s defense team after Simpson’s wife was murdered and O.J. was charged with her death.
The lawyer thought about Bibi’s question, then responded, also in a whisper, “Tell me. Does Israel have nuclear weapons?”
Although he’s been friendly with both men, Dershowitz – who calls himself a Zionist – is foursquare behind Netanyahu in his feud with President Barack Obama.
In a recent telephone interview with this newspaper, Dershowitz explained why he sides with Netanyahu – and answered such questions as “Why do lawyers have such a bad a reputation?” And “Would he have defended so evil a man as the Nazi physician Josef Mengele? … Or the convicted Soviet spies, the Rosenbergs?”
Dershowitz is quick-thinking, funny, courteous (hearing me start to say something just as he did, he always let me go first), and surprisingly candid. Many of his positions are well-known: He favors a two-state solution with the Palestinians, has criticized Israel for its expanding settlements, endorsed Obama for president, favors (limited) animal rights, and wants almost complete freedom of expression.
Q. Could you have predicted a falling-out between Obama and Netanyahu?
AD: Yes. They’re both very strong personalities, both no-nonsense types. But I think the falling-out is almost exclusively the fault of Obama. He has acted childishly. There may have been opportunities for private criticism, but Obama has taken every opportunity to publicly insult Netanyahu, either directly or through his surrogates. And it’s a very serious failing on the part of Obama, and his foreign policy, to make this issue [keeping Iran from making nuclear weapons] so personal and to be so petulant.
Q. Can there still be a reconciliation?
AD: Between the two countries, obviously. I don’t know whether there will be any personal reconciliation.
Q. If Hillary gets elected, might she have similar trouble with Netanyahu?
AD: Not at all. I believe that Hillary will learn the lessons of the Obama administration. Look, any objective observer – and I’ve heard this from Democrats, Republicans, and close friends of Obama – believes that he’s acted immaturely toward Netanyahu. And he has personalized it far too much. I’ll give you an example.
When Prime Minister Netanyahu said that during the election that this is no time for a two-state solution, and after the election he said he’s still open to a two-state solution, Obama – instead of welcoming the second point – repeatedly condemned the first point. That was just dumb. And Obama is very smart. So you can’t explain that on the basis of policy or intelligence. It can only be explained on the basis of the fact that Obama has put personal pique ahead of national policy.
Q. What do you think of the U.S. government’s recent agreement with Iran with regard to nuclear weapons?
AD: I think it’s a terrible deal, and I think the way it was negotiated put us in an extraordinarily weak position – to either accept a bad deal or to reject it. It’s the process of negotiation that has been so amateurish. What mostly concerns me about Obama’s foreign policy is its amateurism. It seems to be based more on personal considerations rather than the national security of the United States.
Q. You’ve said you hope that Hillary doesn’t approve of the agreement?
AD: I hope she doesn’t.
Q. Do you want Hillary elected president?
AD: At the moment I do. I favored her when she ran against Obama.
Q. What about Elizabeth Warren?
AD: I would not vote for Elizabeth Warren. Because she would not attend Netanyahu’s speech. And for me that was a disqualifying act.
Q. You object to the agreement partly because you don’t think Iran can be trusted?
AD: Even the Obama administration knows that Iran can’t be trusted. They think that they can postpone the inevitable, Iran’s getting a nuclear weapon, by eight or 10 years. It’s a change.
When President Obama called me into the Oval Office and sat with me eyeball to eyeball, and told me that the policy of the United States was that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons, I think he meant it at that time, but that that policy has been changed – and it’s been changed without the consent of the American people or the Congress. And I think it’s a terrible mistake. I think the policy should still be that Iran should never develop nuclear weapons. And I think this administration has now said, we shall not stop them from developing nuclear weapons…after a period of time.
Q. You’re still in favor of a two-state solution?
AD: I am, and I think it’s not only possible, but that it will happen. I think it’s the only plausible result, and I’ve advocated that since 1970, well before the Israeli government advocated that.
Q. Why have you never run for public office?
AD: I’m too controversial.
Q. Have you ever been asked?
AD: Sure, when I was young. But I like to be controversial, I like to express my views openly and not worry about any impact my views might have on any election.
Q. I read that you turned down Bobby Fischer, the chess champion, as a client. [Fischer wanted Dershowitz to represent him at no cost; but he wouldn’t play a quick game with one of Dershowitz’s young sons.] Any there any other famous people you’ve turned down?
AD: I’ve turned down a lot of famous people who wanted me to do things for them that I didn’t think was in their best interest. I never make the decision to take a case based on someone’s celebrity.
Q. Would you have turned down someone like Josef Mengele, the monstrous Nazi physician?
AD: I probably would have strangled him before he had the opportunity to ask me the question! Then I’d need someone else to defend me.
Q. Is there anyone in history you wish you had had an opportunity to defend?
AD: Of course. Jesus. Imagine if a Jewish lawyer had won an acquitted for Jesus! So many of our problems would have been avoided. No Crusades. No Inquisition! So I would love to have defended Jesus in front of the Roman authorities.
Q. What would your defense have been?
AD: Free speech. He was a Reform rabbi basically, calling for changes in Jewish law. He said, I come not to destroy the law but to validate it. So he had the right to say what he said. Much evil has been done in his name, and much good, but Jesus himself was just a nice Jewish boy from Nazareth who didn’t like some of the rabbis. I understand that very well. I didn’t like some of my rabbis.
Q. Would you like to have defended the Rosenbergs?
AD: Yes, but I would have put on a very different defense. Julius Rosenberg was clearly guilty, and Ethel was not. And I think I could have saved Ethel’s life – I’m not so sure about Julius’s.
Q. Why are so many “liberal” Jews against Israel?
AD: First of all, they’re not liberals. It’s radical leftist Jews who are against Israel. I’m a liberal Jew. Most of my liberal friends are supportive of Israel. Usually it’s the same radical left that hates America that hates Israel, and often they hate Israel because Israel is so close to America. That would be true of [Noam] Chomsky, [Norman] Finkelstein – all of them hate America, and their hatred of Israel is derived from their hatred of Western values. I think that recently there have been some liberal Jews, like J Street, who are anti-Israel but they don’t admit it. Take their position on Iran. There’s virtually no one in a leadership position in Israel who likes the deal. J Street supports the deal. I don’t think it’s fair for J Street to call itself pro-Israel when it doesn’t represent even the liberal part of the Israeli political spectrum.
Q. Any comments on the causes of anti-Semitism?
AD: I think that anti-Semitism often results from jealousy of Jewish success. I think it often grows out of hatred for Israel – for example, Muslim anti-Semitism, which is rampant in many parts of the world. Many Muslim extremists take the view that even if Israel were the size of a postage stamp, it would be in violation of Islamic law, that there can’t be even a tiny Jewish state on what is regarded as holy Muslim land. There are some Jewish extremists who take the same view about Muslims, that there should be no non-Jewish presence or sovereignty over the land that was historically part of Israel. And I think that both of those extreme views have to be rejected.
Q. Another general question: Why do lawyers in general have such a bad reputation?
AD: Because they deserve it! Too many lawyers are just in it for the money and don’t pay adequate attention to their clients’ needs. There are just too many bad lawyers out there, and the bar doesn’t do a good enough job in monitoring them -bad lawyers, crooked lawyers, deceptive lawyers, lawyers who cheat their clients, lawyers who victimize people. So I think the bar has to do a better job.