Go figure Tom Friedman

Mar 17, 2011

Op-ed: Top columnist writings on Israel ludicrous, offer wildly contradictory advice

Martin Sherman

Tom Friedman is journalist of undoubted talent. He has produced numerous insightful and thought-provoking columns on both US domestic politics and on international affairs that range from the ascent of modern India to the potential profitability for inventiveness in environmentally friendly technologies. However, when it comes to Israel – specifically the Israel-Palestinian question – his writing morphs from the lucid to the ludicrous.

Indeed, since the beginning of the Obama Administration in late 2008, Friedman has sallied forth with series of articles that have not only been harshly critical of Israel, but also decidedly haughty and hostile. But as irritating as his condescending and contemptuous style may be, what is far more troubling is how the substance of his writings has become so detached from reality and/or so devoid of context.

In his Driving Drunk in Jerusalem (March 2010), Friedman adopted the most malevolent and mendacious aspects of anti-Israeli slander. In it, he suggested that the Israel government was putting the lives of American troops at risk – all because during a visit by Vice President Biden in Jerusalem, it approved an interim planning stage for the future expansion of an existing neighborhood in its capital, situated closer to the Knesset than Du Pont Circle (in central Washington DC) is to the Capitol.

Approvingly he quoted Biden mindless allegation that “What you are doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and endangers regional peace.”

It is difficult to know what is more infuriating: Friedman’s endorsement of Biden’s vicious vilification of Israel, or his ignoring of Biden’s outrageous hypocrisy. After all it was none other than Senator Joe Biden who not only supported, but sponsored and/or co-sponsored at least half-a-dozen Congressional resolutions calling not only for US recognition of an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but for the US to relocate its embassy to the city.

What should we attribute this omission to? Staggering ignorance? Purposeful malice? Hypocritical Opportunism? Professional amnesia? Certainly nothing that one would expect from the pillar of the “paper of record” as the NYT deems itself to be.

Absurd theory

Friedman also gets low grades for coherence and consistency – with his recommendations for US policy swinging wildly from one extreme to the other. Thus, in his Hobby or Necessity? (March, 2010), Friedman deemed an Israeli Palestinian agreement to be essential for US foreign policy and indispensible for its success. The reason for this alleged US imperative is an imagined causal nexus between Iranian nuclear aspirations and the Palestinian problem. According to “Friedmanian” wisdom, if Israel would only make perilous territorial concessions to an unelected aging leadership and allow the establishment of an unsustainable micro-mini Arab Sunni state, the non-Arab Shiite Persians will somehow be convinced to relinquish their drive for regional hegemony. Moreover, Friedman appears to think that only once the Palestinians are accommodated, will the rest of the Arab world (which has been responsible for the slaughter of Palestinians on a scale arguably greater than anything Israel is accused of) miraculously acquire a clearer view of their own interests, and allow a more muscular policy toward thwarting Iran’s nuclear program. This absurd theory, that Washington can only galvanize a front against a common threat by undermining its allies, was vividly underscored by the WikiLeaks exposé, which showed that despite the absence of Palestinian statehood, Arab regimes had little inhibitions about pressing the Obama administration to “cut off the head of the (Iranian) snake” before it was too late.

Indeed, Friedman soon abandoned his view that an Israeli-Palestinian deal is an indispensible American foreign policy necessity. In Reality Check (November 2010) he advised: “The most valuable thing that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could do now is just get out of the picture”, i.e. to treat the previous “necessity” with benign neglect and to leave the sides to stew in their own juices.

However, soon after this dramatic “zig” Friedman made an equally drastic “zag”. In his recent B.E., Before Egypt. A.E., After Egypt he again urged the administration to “get back in to the picture”. He now spurred it to take an active role stating: “Today I believe President Obama should put his own peace plan on the table, bridging the Israeli and Palestinian positions” – which completely contradicts his prior position that this was detrimentally futile…which, in turn, completely contradicted his position prior to his prior position, that this was a crucial necessity. Go figure Friedman.

Obsession with settlements

Indeed, in this article he elevates the art of the non sequitur to formerly unattained levels. Astonishingly, although Friedman recognizes that Mideastern geopolitical structure has undergone tectonic shifts and agrees that “everything we thought for the last 30 years is no longer relevant…(and) everything that once anchored our world is now unmoored,” he suggests that we should implement …precisely what he was proposing before these shifts -i.e. massive Israeli territorial concession to the Abbas-Fayyad regime.

Thus, just as overwhelming evidence is beginning to emerge as to the imprudence of an approach that hinges on long-term survival of autocratic Arab-regimes of dubious legitimacy, questionable popular support and aging leadership, he urges Israel to adopt – and the US to expedite – precisely such an approach. So although Friedman might arguably be right when he states that “Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have built a government that is the best the Palestinians have ever had”, he neglects an “inconvenient truth”: The political and socio-economic realities in the PA administered territories still comprise a dysfunctional polity and an unsustainable economy – with around 60% of GDP due to foreign handouts, with disposable income far less than GDP (reportedly about half); and with a perilous combination of an insignificantly tiny productive base and a massively bloated public sector.

Is Freidman seriously counseling Israel to consider this a good long-term bet on which to wager vital national interests?

Finally, no review of Friedman’s perspective on Israel is complete without reference to his obsession with “settlements.” As if totally oblivious to the proven futility of a previous 10-month building freeze and the proven irrelevance of settlements as a source of Palestinian intransigence and violence, he severely chides Netanyahu for honoring his pledge to his government and his people by refusing to extend the freeze for two more months. Can Friedman really be unaware that although in Gaza all settlements were razed and even cemeteries uprooted, this brought no peaceable response from Palestinians?

Indeed, quite the opposite, they chose to trample abandoned hi-tech greenhouses, desecrate deserted synagogues and bombard civilian populations, clearly demonstrating the settlements are only an excuse, not a reason, for their enduring hostility.

Indeed, in view of the fact that Israel has evacuated the entire Sinai peninsula, relinquished its oil resources and its foregone strategic depth, has withdrawn unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, has demolished settlements in northern Samaria, has allowed armed militias to deploy in the areas adjacent to its capital and within mortar range of its parliament, it is difficult to imagine anything more galling and absurd than Friedman’s accusation in I Believe I Can Fly (November 2010), where he has the temerity contend that the exercise of circumspect caution by the Israeli government “makes Israel look like it wants land more than peace.”

Surely the time has come to treat Friedman with the disregard his undisguised bias and his unacceptable bile clearly warrant.