Tensions ran particularly high when Gold confronted Barghouthi about a meeting he’d attended in Cairo with the head of Hamas. Asked how he could espouse nonviolence while reaching out to a terrorist group, Barghouthi responded with a dig at Israel’s own bloody record. When Donvan intervened, the Palestinian statesman replied that Hamas had begun to revise its jihadist ideals, which prompted Miller to jump in that such a comment “strained the bounds of credulity.”
“Why are you afraid of change?” yelled Barghouti.
Levy started to make a point about the intransigence of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who rejected the idea of Palestinian statehood in a conference last week. This prompted Gold to interrupt with a splutter of (justified) outrage: “Daniel Levy! Daniel Levy! Daniel Levy! That’s called moral equivalence, Daniel Levy.”
“Oh, don’t throw moral equivalence at me,” snapped the former negotiator.
Emotions cooled somewhat during the question-and-answer period. Elaborating on the practical benefits of Palestinian membership in the U.N., Mustafa Barghouti revealed that he considered a settlement freeze to be the most desirable outcome of Abbas’ petition. Miller countered that admission might actually accelerate settlement activity. At that point, Barghouthi explained that he envisioned the PLO’s efforts at the U.N. as part of a larger movement of nonviolent resistance, one that anticipated setbacks and declined to store its aspirations in a single basket.
Whether ominous or inspiring, this suggestion reappeared a few minutes later in Daniel Levy’s notion of an amorphous “hope” that would fortify Palestinian spirits for the long haul.
Miller wrote me after the debate that it may have been to his opponents’ benefit that they had such romantic paradigms on their side. “The appearance of giving up is far worse than giving in,” he said, “even if you’re giving in to an idea that in the real world will make Palestinian statehood harder to achieve.”
On the other hand, John Donvan conceded that there is a limit to living in the past—to hostaging yourself, for instance, to outdated agreements and other generations’ crimes.
None of the debaters seemed to think that U.N. membership for a Palestinian state would solve the vast majority of the problems facing Israelis and Palestinians today. (Even Levy admitted that it could make things worse.) Yet the debate audience concluded that the glimmer of a possibility of a solution just might be worth stirring the pot.
Correction, Jan. 11, 2011: This article originally referred to the initial vote in favor of the motion as being 34 percent, rather than 37 percent.