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Tom Friedman vs. Israel

The New York Times columnist's record on the Middle East shows that he is not Israel's friend.

by
David Gerstman

Bio

December 28, 2011 - 12:00 am

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.

While Israel fought against the terror infrastructure that Arafat had built up subsequent to Oslo, there was international pressure for diplomacy. Ahead of the Arab League summit scheduled for March 2002, Friedman wrote a column (in the form of a fictional memo from President Bush) titled “Dear Arab League“:

Memo to: President Hosni Mubarak, Crown Prince Abdullah, King Abdullah, President Bashar al-Assad and the rest of the Arab League

We’re just bystanders. You’re the ones with the power to really reshape the diplomacy, not me. And here is my advice for how to do it. You have an Arab League summit set for March in Lebanon. I suggest your summit issue one simple resolution: “The 22 members of the Arab League say to Israel that in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, lines — in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and on the Golan Heights — we offer full recognition of Israel, diplomatic relations, normalized trade and security guarantees. Full peace with all 22 Arab states for full withdrawal.”

Since you’ve all told me privately that this is your position, why not make it public and get the benefit? This is how to bury Osama bin Laden and define for the world who the Arabs really are. If you can’t take that risk, why should I?

It was this proposal that Friedman promoted in a later column titled “An intriguing signal from the Saudi Crown Prince.” It became known as the Arab peace initiative. Aside from any problems with the sincerity or intent of the proposal, the sequence of events in the following weeks was troubling.

After getting the boost from Friedman’s op-ed, Crown Prince Abdullah (now King) sought to drum up support from other Arab leaders. He got support from Syria but at a cost. The Arab peace proposal now had a new condition:

Full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights to the lines of June 4, 1967 as well as the remaining occupied Lebanese territories in the south of Lebanon.

As noted above, Israel had, two year earlier, fully withdrawn from Lebanese territory with UN certification. The area now referred to as “occupied Lebanese territories” was an area known as Shebaa Farms, which had been Syria territory prior to the Six Day War. Syria was in effect ceding its territory to Lebanon in order to maintain a grievance against Israel. Once Abdullah changed the parameters of his proposal, it indicated that he (or the Arab League) could change any demand on Israel and declare Israel non-compliant. Israel could not trust that the peace proposal would not change further to its detriment.

Interestingly, the UN Security Council refused to endorse the Saudi peace proposal for this reason. Even though including the mention of Lebanese territory demonstrated the bad faith of the Arab League, Friedman never criticized Abdullah for his cynicism. (He did write a column faulting Abdullah on other related issues.) Later, Friedman called on Abdullah to revive his proposal as if his proposal was made sincerely and in good faith.

Recent events have demonstrated another element of bad faith in Friedman’s promotion of the Arab League peace plan. In May, after Mubarak was forced from power in Egypt, Friedman wrote “End of Mideast Wholesale.” In the column, Friedman faulted Israel for depending on Mubarak to keep the peace between Israel and Egypt. Back in 2002, Friedman was telling Israel that it could depend on the collective word of over twenty despots. The irony that he now claimed that such rulers should not be relied upon because they had no electoral legitimacy seems to have escaped Friedman.

Finally, in a 2009 column, “Green Shoots in Palestine,” Friedman introduced a concept of Fayyadism, named after the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad:

Fayyadism is based on the simple but all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or rejectionism or personality cults or security services, but on delivering transparent, accountable administration and services.

Fayyad, a former finance minister who became prime minister after Hamas seized power in Gaza in June 2007, is unlike any Arab leader today. He is an ardent Palestinian nationalist, but his whole strategy is to say: the more we build our state with quality institutions — finance, police, social services — the sooner we will secure our right to independence. I see this as a challenge to “Arafatism,” which focused on Palestinian rights first, state institutions later, if ever, and produced neither.

Things are truly getting better in the West Bank, thanks to a combination of Fayyadism, improved Palestinian security and a lifting of checkpoints by Israel. In all of 2008, about 1,200 new companies registered for licenses here. In the first six months of this year, almost 900 have registered. According to the I.M.F., the West Bank economy should grow by 7 percent this year.

Friedman would refer back to “Fayyadism” every few months to criticize Israel for not making the necessary material concession to the Palestinians to support Fayyad. Never mind that Fayyad (or “Fayyadism”) has no real constituency among the Palestinians. Never mind that it is Abbas, not Netanyahu, who refuses to negotiate.

In contrast to Friedman, Jackson Diehl noted shortly after President Obama’s election that, based on the signals he received from Obama, Abbas would wait for the new president to pressure Netanyahu to give Abbas what he wanted before negotiating. Two and a half years later, Abbas is as reluctant as ever to negotiate, and has suffered no significant rebuke from the Obama administration. With the exception of a single column – and the column mostly criticized Netanyahu – Friedman has never criticized either Obama or Abbas for this dynamic.

For Friedman, the concept of Fayyadism was just one more reason to condemn Israel. Compounding this cynicism, when Abbas started negotiating an agreement with Hamas, which would have sidelined Fayyad, Friedman didn’t write a single column condemning Abbas for acting against “Fayyadism.”

In these three cases — the withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the Arab peace plan, and “Fayyadism” — Friedman proclaimed he had the answer to promote peace in the Middle East. When none of these worked out as Friedman envisioned, he still found some way to blame Israel for the failures.

The most generous explanation is that Friedman is unserious and will latch onto any idea that sounds vaguely appealing. But that doesn’t explain why Friedman nearly always finds Israel at fault for the lack of peace in the Middle East. If someone is always looking for a reason to criticize you, he isn’t a friend. Friedman’s record on the Middle East shows that he is not — despite his lame protestations to the contrary — Israel’s friend.

David Gerstman closely monitors and writes about the media.
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