Lots of political moxy at Spirit of Hope in Toronto

Alan Dershowitz and David Gergen at Spirit of Hope panel discussion

Alan Dershowitz and David Gergen got into it at Spirit of Hope panel discussion in Toronto on Tuesday night.

David Gergen has a lot of fans — me included — because his even-tempered demeanour only seems to get broken when it meets blatant hypocrisy. On Tuesday night, Gergen, the CNN political analyst, winced and shook his head and appeared to be struggling with a virtual straitjacket as he forced himself to stay seated while colleague Alan Dershowitz spouted some bewildering balderdash in front of an audience at Beth Tzedec Congregation at 1700 Bathurst Street.

Gergen and Dershowitz, colleagues at Harvard University, were joined on the Spirit of Hope panel by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Gibbs, Barack Obama’s former White House press secretary. The night featured some fascinating discussions and revelations.

Woodward, whose recent book is “Obama’s Wars,” thinks “the Arab Spring has been misnamed. It’s more like the Arab Convulsion” and it could be “this president’s 9/11.” The situation is so tenuous, he said, that it threatens to dominate the remainder of the Obama administration’s first term, which would be damaging considering the president and his staff need to concentrate on the U.S. economy. Gibbs, who left the White House in February but remains a staunch Obama supporter and adviser, told the audience of about 2,000 that the president has had more close, private conversations with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu than with any other world leader since taking office. Gergen said the killing of Osama bin Laden “blunted the opposition argument that Obama was weak on foreign policy” so much that it could win a second term as long as the economy shows some improvement. “Obama got Osama. The Democrats are going to shout that at their convention.” And Dershowitz revealed that Netanyahu changed “the speech he wanted to give to Congress” last week in response to a perceived slight in an address Obama gave announcing his support for returning Israel to the 1967 boundaries that divide it from Palestine.

Dershowitz’s comments all evening seemed politically motivated rather than analytical and while that won him applause from the audience, it rankled the other panelists, who each took turns correcting his errors. Dershowitz, who had been asked by Netanyahu to be an Israeli ambassador, even went so far as to say, “The United States can always count on the support of Israel but Israel cannot always count on the support of the United States.” Fact is, the U.S. gives at least $3 billion annually in economic and military aid to Israel.

Gergen was continuously agitated by Dershowitz’s comments and in his closing remarks at the event sponsored by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies called for more conciliatory language from both American and Israeli politicians and commentators. Otherwise, he said, Israel could continue to lose support globally, leaving just Canada and the United States on its side. “That wouldn’t be good for Israel and it would be a concern for North America,” he told the attendees, which included moderator Heather Riesman, founder and president of Indigo Books & Music.

With the United Nations General Assembly ready to pass a motion in September that will recognize an independent Palestinian state, the Middle East tensions are only going to ratchet up it seems. But Woodward had a more dire concern.

“What worries me and what should worry all of us is how little we — in any country — know about what really goes on in government,” he said. “If democracy dies in the darkness, then none of this that we’re talking about tonight really matters.”

Listening to the four big brains from America was a delight and makes me wish there was more political discourse in Toronto about U.S. politics. Not only because it’s a subject I’m passionate about but because it has such impact on all of us and, as Woodward suggested, the mechanics of how it really operates continue to be so hard to decipher that discussion can only help break down the veil.

[Julia Pelish Photography photo]

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