15 May 2007

15 May 2007 - The Doha debates

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The little Persian Gulf emirate that brought you Al-Jazeera now brings you the Doha debates, a series of Oxford Union-style debates sponsored by the semi-private Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development and hosted by the provocative Tim Sebastian of the BBC’s Hardtalk program. The audiences have fairly predictable sympathies but the panels are fun to watch in action.

An entire page of video podcasts is available at the RSS site for the debates, and the last two debates are really worth watching. The most recent tests the motion: “This House believes the pro-Israel lobby has successfully stifled Western debate about Israel’s actions.” The motion passes by a two-thirds majority, but in the process former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and journalist David Aaronovitch absolutely destroy professional Israel-haters Norman Finkelstein and Alexander Cockburn, exposing their self-serving, conspiratorial buffoonery as the sham it is.

Next on the list is a remarkable debate about the Palestinian right of return, which brings out a number of Palestinians who favor giving it up entirely, including panelist Bassem Eid. Eid rails against the way Arab states treat Palestinian refugees, and lays into a flustered Ali Abunimah, who makes the usual contrived references to South Africa. (Really, that takes chutzpah—to talk about “one person, one vote” in Israel when you are sitting in a country run by a hereditary absolutist monarchy!) Yossi Beilin, teamed up with Eid, is at once tongue-tied and self-promoting; Ilan Pappe is crude but effective, getting in a good line (or lie) wherever he can. The mainstream Israeli view is not represented at all, save by a religious Muslim student in the audience who asks why Jews should be expected to give up their state. Still, the debate is an interesting glimpse into the complexity of Arab opinion, still struggling to find its full expression in a “liberal” Arab autocracy.

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