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September 21, 2020 5:13 am

Thomas Friedman’s Folly

avatar by Jerold Auerbach / JNS.org

Opinion

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

JNS.org – Thomas Friedman, the New York Times pontificator on the Middle East, and especially Israel, could not resist. In a column titled “The Love Triangle That Spawned Trump’s Mideast Peace Deal” between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (Sept. 15), he rightly praised “anything that makes the Middle East more like the European Union and less like the Syrian civil war.”

Seizing the opportunity, Friedman cited his 40 years as a chronicler of Arab-Israel diplomacy to segue from an engaging analysis of the new agreement to his long-favored trope: Israel’s occupation of “Palestinian” land. “Maybe the most important unintended consequence of [Jared] Kushner’s peace endeavor,” he imagines, was its exposure of the fact that the Israeli government “is completely incapable of accepting any kind of two-state solution with the Palestinians.”

Kushner’s plan would allow Israel to annex “about 30% of the West Bank” (biblical Judea and Samaria), where most of the settlements that Friedman despises are located. In Friedman’s rendition, “hardline settlers in Bibi’s coalition” — referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — unable to secure sovereignty over the entire West Bank, opposed yielding the remaining 70% for a Palestinian state. But Netanyahu, as he is wont to do under pressure, abandoned his annexation plan in return for the UAE promise to normalize relations with Israel.

For Friedman, never a fan of settlers, that is cause for celebration. He foresees that Palestinians — frustrated by the absence of statehood and unrelenting Israeli control — “will eventually demand equal rights and Israeli citizenship.” That would “pose a direct threat to Israel’s Jewish and democratic character in a way no Arab army ever has.” He imagines, with evident glee, that this would be Netanyahu’s “true legacy.”

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It may be, however, that Friedman and not Netanyahu “flunked” the test. A brief summary of his Brandeis University leadership in a “Middle East Peace Group,” his stint as a UPI reporter in Lebanon, and his decades as the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief and columnist indicate why.

The Peace Group published a statement, signed by Friedman, discounting Palestinian terrorist attacks as “clearly not representative of the diverse elements of the Palestinian people,” as though that mattered to Israeli victims. Co-chaired by Friedman, the Peace Group joined Breira (“alternative”), an organization of left-wing rabbis and Jewish intellectuals who favored Palestinian statehood, and blamed Israel and the United States for Middle East instability.

Hired by UPI after Middle East studies at Oxford, Friedman was posted to Beirut, where he quickly learned the importance of “keeping on good terms with the PLO.” In 1981, he was hired by the New York Times, returning to Beirut in time to cover the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian Phalangists. The massacre, he concluded, was “a blot on Israel and the Jewish people.” Indeed, he confessed, it demolished “every illusion I ever held about the Jewish state.”

Posted to Jerusalem, Friedman resumed his narrative of Israeli malfeasance. Israeli “occupation” (of its biblical homeland in Judea and Samaria) became a persistent theme of his reporting.

Criticism of Israel, especially by Israeli leftists who were his primary opinion sources, identified the Jewish state as the major source of Middle East problems. So, embracing moral equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians, Friedman cited Israeli “occupation” of “Palestinian” land as the explanation for its moral decline. He wondered whether Israel would become “a Jewish South Africa, permanently ruling Palestinians in West Bank homelands.” Or, perhaps, “a Jewish Prussia, trying to bully all of its neighbors.”

Friedman airily dismissed waves of Palestinian terrorist attacks as merely a “constant challenge — like a continual poke in the ribs.” Celebrating their emergence as a “people” and a “nation,” he seemed surprised that “Palestinian” and “terrorist” were linked. In his rendering of the biblical narrative, they dared “to challenge the Israelis the way David challenged Goliath.”

Friedman, like his newspaper, routinely applied a double standard to Israel (that he imaginatively recast as a “unique double dimension”). He preposterously claimed that when Israel no longer was “judged by standards applied to no other country,” it meant that “something very essential in Israel’s character and the character of the Jewish people has died.” He declined to say what double standards revealed about journalistic integrity.

Returning to the United States as a Times columnist who could lacerate Israel at will, Friedman believed that there was “no hope for peace without a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.” Yearning for a “total Israeli withdrawal” to pre-1967 lines, he warned that without a two-state solution, “Israel will be stuck with an apartheid-like, democracy-sapping, permanent occupation.” Echoing a trope favored by his colleague Anthony Lewis, he feared that “scary religious nationalist zealots” might lead Israel into the “dark corner” of a South African future of apartheid.

But Friedman’s dark fantasies about Israel unless it obeys his peace proposals reveal nothing more than his frustration that the Jewish state does not heed his advice for a return to its pre-1967 borders. That, of course, would heighten its vulnerability to new waves of Palestinian terrorism. He remains as he was as a Brandeis undergraduate: yearning for Palestinian statehood and furious at Israel for its determination to rebuild a state within its ancient Jewish homeland.

To be sure, Friedman is hardly alone at the New York Times. In an editorial (Sept. 17) celebrating the normalization of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, the Times reiterated its hackneyed insistence that “a true Middle East peace deal” requires “an accommodation” (a two-state solution) with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But even a cursory glance at the refusal of Palestinians under Yasser Arafat to accept a peace that would have given them the entire West Bank and Gaza for their own state would suggest otherwise. Thomas Friedman and the New York Times are a perfect match for the blame-Israel-first prize.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.

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