Two weeks ago, columnist Thomas Friedman created a controversy in his column “Newt, Mitt, Bibi and Vladimir“ when he wrote:
I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.
By using language evoking antisemitic imagery of Israel “owning” Congress, Friedman seemed to step over a line. In an effort to control the damage of his ill-advised language, Friedman defended himself to Gary Rosenblatt of the The Jewish Week. At the end of the article Rosenblatt wrote:
Friedman has often written of his support for the State of Israel, despite his sometimes sharp criticism of Jerusalem’s policies.
Last year Bradley Burston of Ha’aretz quoted Friedman:
“Israel doesn’t have to worry about me,” Friedman had stressed early in the interview. “At the end of the day, Israel will have my support — it had me at hello.”
Supporters like Rosenblatt portray Friedman as a friend of Israel. However a survey of his extensive writing about the Middle East shows that Friedman is hostile to Israel. The problem isn’t simply his “sometimes sharp criticisms” of Israel, rather it is his ever-shifting standards that always find Israel wanting.
In 1999, Friedman wrote a hypothetical column titled “How Bibi got Re-elected.” The conceit of the column — actually written before Netanyahu lost the premiership to Ehud Barak — was that Netanyahu tackled the most important issue facing Israel at that time — withdrawing Israeli troops from Lebanon. Friedman wrote:
Now that Israeli troops are out of Lebanon, noted Mr. Netanyahu, everything is reversed: Politically, if the Iranian-directed Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas try to come across the border, they will be invading Israel, and Israel will be justified in massively retaliating against Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian troops that abet such an invasion. And if Israel does retaliate, it won’t be with guerrilla warfare, but with the Israeli Air Force massively striking Lebanese, Iranian and Syrian military targets in Lebanon, and maybe inside Syria.
The Israeli move has totally unnerved the Syrians, the Hezbollah guerrillas and Iran. ”They are all now in a quandary,” said the Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen. ”The Hezbollah guerrillas are saying to themselves: ‘Now that we have liberated Lebanon, do we want to use that as leverage to rule Lebanon? Or do we want to use that as a springboard to move on to Jerusalem?’ If they want to do the latter, now they’re really going to have to pay for it.”
Over the next six years Hezbollah violated the internationally approved border no less than 20 times, killing and wounding Israeli civilians and soldiers. In 2006 — following a particularly egregious incident in which Hezbollah crossed the borders, immediately killing eight soldiers and kidnapping (later killing) Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, Israel struck back. How did Friedman describe Israel’s response?
In a column titled “War, Timeout, War, Time …” Friedman wrote about Israel’s three recent wars against terror:
What is different about these three wars, though, is that Israel won them using what I call “Hama Rules” — which are no rules at all. “Hama Rules” are named after the Syrian town of Hama, where, in 1982, then-President Hafez el-Assad of Syria put down a Muslim fundamentalist uprising by shelling and then bulldozing their neighborhoods, killing more than 10,000 of his own people.
In Israel’s case, it found itself confronting enemies in Gaza and Lebanon armed with rockets, but nested among local civilians, and Israel chose to go after them without being deterred by the prospect of civilian casualties. As the Lebanese militia leader Bashir Gemayel was fond of saying — before he himself was blown up — “This is not Denmark here. And it is not Norway.”
The brutality of the Israeli retaliations bought this timeout with Hezbollah and Hamas, and the civilian casualties and troubling TV images bought Israel a U.N. investigation into alleged war crimes.
Even as Friedman acknowledged that Israel was fighting an enemy embedded among civilians, he still compared Israel’s second Lebanon War with Hafez Assad’s brutal assault on civilians. Rather than defending Israel’s right to self-defense, Friedman equated Israel’s self-defense with Assad’s all out assault on civilians. Even though Israel heeded his advice by withdrawing from southern Lebanon, Friedman didn’t defend Israel when the withdrawal resulted in a new threat.