Wednesday, May 18th | 17 Iyyar 5782

March 7, 2019 3:32 pm

What Tom Friedman and Ilhan Omar Have in Common

avatar by Ira Stoll


New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Photo: Charles Haynes via Wikimedia Commons.

New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman is responding to the flap over Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar by publishing his own attack on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Friedman writes that he and Omar are both from Minnesota and “both don’t like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.”

Friedman seems to blame AIPAC for every problem in the Middle East and in the US-Israel relationship.

He writes: “I believe Aipac for many years has not only become a rubber stamp on the right-wing policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has resulted in tens of thousands of Israeli settlers now ensconced in the heart of the West Bank, imperiling Israel as a democracy.”

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It’s ridiculous to blame AIPAC for Israeli settlement policy. That policy was set for decades by Israeli politicians from both Labor and Likud who were swayed by an array of arguments. There was a strategic argument, that the Jordan Valley and the Judean Hills provided important military depth that protected Israel’s capital and its highly populated, narrow coastal plain from the possibility of Arab tanks (or later, Iranian-installed rocket-launchers) rolling in from the east. And there was a moral argument, that if Jews chose freely to settle land described in the Bible as God’s covenantal gift to the Jews, how could the government of a Jewish state tell Jews that they were banned from living there?

Friedman’s fantasy is that the members of AIPAC — American Jews from places like Minnesota, West Los Angeles, and Boca Raton, Fla. — are going to substitute their own judgment on the settlement issue over that of Israel’s government or of Israel’s electorate. But such an approach doesn’t make much sense, because if the Baathist tanks were to roll through the Jordan Valley, it wouldn’t have been the Jews from Brentwood and Boca Raton who would have been crunched under the tracks. As for the idea that “tens of thousands” of West Bank settlers imperil “Israel as a democracy,” that’s nonsense. Israel has a population approaching 9 million. The settlers are a small minority. Israeli governments, even right-leaning governments, have previously evacuated settlements in Sinai and in Gaza and even outposts in the West Bank.

Friedman writes further, “Aipac has also been responsible for making support for Israel a Republican cause, not a bipartisan issue, which poses a real danger to Israel’s support in America in the long run, and particularly on college campuses.”

First of all, it’s not accurate that support for Israel is a Republican cause rather than a bipartisan issue. Second, even if it were accurate, it wouldn’t be AIPAC’s fault. AIPAC is scrupulously bipartisan. Plenty of Democrats speak at its annual policy conference. AIPAC activists give money to both Republicans and Democrats. AIPAC leaders have included Steve Grossman, who is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, longtime Democratic fundraiser Norman Brownstein and ex-President Barack Obama’s friend Lee Rosenberg. As Friedman himself reported later in his own column, if anything, AIPAC has worked to prevent Israel from becoming a cause that only one party supports. Friedman noted that, on Feb. 28, 2015, The Washington Post reported, “Worried that lawmakers might boycott the speech altogether, a board member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee prodded local AIPAC activists to apply pressure on Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to attend.’’ If AIPAC wanted Israel to just be a Republican cause, it’d be perfectly happy to have Democrats boycott Netanyahu’s speech.

Friedman wrote, “Given how Aipac has let itself become the slavish, unthinking tool of Netanyahu, who opposes a two-state solution, I believe Aipac works against Israel’s long-term interests.”

It’s not accurate that AIPAC has “let itself become the slavish, unthinking tool of Netanyahu.” In fact, in an unusual move, the organization recently publicly criticized Netanyahu for a move in Israel party politics, a point the Friedman column totally ignores. But given that the Israeli public repeatedly elected Netanyahu and that AIPAC’s mission is to support a strong US-Israel relationship, it’s not surprising that AIPAC would show Israel’s elected prime minister a certain amount of deference. I’m old enough to remember right-wing American Jews complaining when AIPAC was supporting the land-for-peace policies of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

If there’s anyone “unthinking” around here, it’s not AIPAC, it’s Friedman. His fantasy of a powerful, bipartisan pro-Israel lobbying organization that only backs Israeli policies when they accord with the preferences of liberal American Jews — rather than the policies chosen by the Israeli public through its democratic process — is totally unworkable. Friedman is free to start such an organization to compete with AIPAC if he feels there is a need for it. In fact, plenty of such rival organizations, from J Street to American For Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum — already do exist. But none has been as successful as AIPAC, primarily because most of the people who care about US-Israel relations enough to devote significant amounts of time and money to it realize that it can’t be pursued with callous disregard for, or in direct opposition to, the choices of Israeli voters. Friedman’s quarrel, in other words, isn’t really with AIPAC, but with the Israeli public that elected Netanyahu.

Friedman insisted, “I love the Israelis.” If Friedman did love Israelis so much, you have to wonder why would he want the US pro-Israel lobby to undermine the prime minister the Israelis elected, rather than supporting him. Friedman, in other words, may have more in common with Ilhan Omar than even he is quite willing to admit in print.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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