Tom Friedman and his upside down world with Israel at its bottom

Thomas Friedman Tries to Get Rid of His Hiccups

A couple of weeks ago, I had to write a response to an unbelievably biased and error-riddled NY Times editorial. Since then, that paper has published two more egregiously wrong editorials, but since I am not a paid writer unlike the editors and writers at the Times, I simply didn’t have time to respond. In short, those editorials were woeful attempts to explain the situation as the Palestinians proceed with their attempt to have the UN recognize an independent Palestinian state.

One of the key writers at the Times who has found Israel a convenient punching bag is Thomas Friedman, the renowned reporter who made his name with the book From Beirut to Jerusalem where he extolled Arafat’s virtues and derided Sharon as a butcher. This past year he has written a couple of editorials that were heavily critical of Israel and its leadership, but I think today’s, Israel: Adrift at Sea Alone, is the one that takes the prize. I’ll break down why:

I’VE never been more worried about Israel’s future. The crumbling of key pillars of Israel’s security — the peace with Egypt, the stability of Syria and the friendship of Turkey and Jordan — coupled with the most diplomatically inept and strategically incompetent government in Israel’s history have put Israel in a very dangerous situation.

So far, so good. I agree entirely.

This has also left the U.S. government fed up with Israel’s leadership but a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s.

Um, the US government caused most of the challenges facing Israel with its inept Middle East and other foreign policy. Take, for example, Obama and this Administration’s constant complaints and threats regarding Israel’s settlements, even including Jerusalem in the equation, but entirely forgiving and tacitly supporting Palestinians’ avoidance of negotiations with Israel.

Oh and do we really need silly remarks about the “pro-Israel lobby?” Is this the powerful lobby that got Obama to invite Netanyahu to the White House at night with no permitted photographs except the one letting him out the side door? Or is this the powerful “pro-Israel lobby” that hasn’t been able to get Obama to accept commitments made by Bush Jr. in a letter to Arik Sharon stating that certain changes on the map will be inviolable. Perhaps it’s the “pro-Israel lobby” that got Obama to go right after Libya, a long distance away from Israel, while remaining toothless against Israel’s next door neighbor, Syria. My, what a powerful lobby!

Here’s a clue: the US vetoed the settlements resolution at the UNSC because it went against US policy. It will veto the current move to create a Palestinian state because the resolution will violate international law, previous UNSC resolutions, all Oslo agreements and all efforts made by the US over the past 17 years to mediate this conflict. The US isn’t going to veto because of a “powerful pro-Israel lobby” but because it’s the only moral, ethical, legal path open to it.

Israel is not responsible for the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or for the uprising in Syria or for Turkey’s decision to seek regional leadership by cynically trashing Israel or for the fracturing of the Palestinian national movement between the West Bank and Gaza. What Israel’s prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, is responsible for is failing to put forth a strategy to respond to all of these in a way that protects Israel’s long-term interests.

Of course not, who the hell can devise such a strategy while those countries are still making their historic changes? It’s not as if Netanyahu hadn’t frozen settlement construction and agreed to discuss a two state solution to promote talks with the Palestinians. He’s done both. It’s not as if his diplomatic emissaries haven’t sent messages that Israel would be willing to go far afield to find compromise. They have. I personally heard Michael Oren give such a speech.

O.K., Mr. Netanyahu has a strategy: Do nothing vis-à-vis the Palestinians or Turkey that will require him to go against his base, compromise his ideology or antagonize his key coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an extreme right-winger. Then, call on the U.S. to stop Iran’s nuclear program and help Israel out of every pickle, but make sure that President Obama can’t ask for anything in return — like halting Israeli settlements — by mobilizing Republicans in Congress to box in Obama and by encouraging Jewish leaders to suggest that Obama is hostile to Israel and is losing the Jewish vote. And meanwhile, get the Israel lobby to hammer anyone in the administration or Congress who says aloud that maybe Bibi has made some mistakes, not just Barack. There, who says Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t have a strategy?

1. He did something vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Read my comment just above.
2. Why should he apologize to Turkey? Israel enforced a legal blockade whose violation was encouraged by a Turkish group with the tacit consent of the Turkish government. When Israeli soldiers went aboard holding paint guns, they were attacked by an organized mob and had to pull out real guns. As my young son said to me when I tried to tell him how stupid the Israeli government was for letting this situation happen (paraphrasing here, this was a while ago): “You have to be stupid to attack commandos. If you attack them you should expect to get hurt.”
3. Settlements were stopped by Israel. Even Jerusalem construction was stopped. Israel got nothing in return.
4. It’s in the US’s interest to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or perhaps Friedman doesn’t read the frantic pro-Israel Wikileaks cables by Iran’s Arab neighbors basically begging the US to do something about this menace.
5. Republicans in Congress don’t need Netanyahu to tell them to box in or how to box in Obama. Obama is doing just fine on his own and so are the Republicans attacking him.
6. Obama is hostile to Israel. He is losing the Jewish vote because of that. I am writing this as someone who is not a Netanyahu supporter and who was a “no matter what” Democratic supporter.
7. I’ve written blog posts about stupid mistakes by Netanyahu. Lots of people attack him and do not get attacked in return. People get attacked when they make false claims about Israel and deservedly so since the repercussions are the types of things we’re seeing now with the unilateral statehood declaration.

“The years-long diplomatic effort to integrate Israel as an accepted neighbor in the Middle East collapsed this week, with the expulsion of the Israeli ambassadors from Ankara and Cairo, and the rushed evacuation of the embassy staff from Amman,” wrote Haaretz newspaper’s Aluf Benn. “The region is spewing out the Jewish state, which is increasingly shutting itself off behind fortified walls, under a leadership that refuses any change, movement or reform … Netanyahu demonstrated utter passivity in the face of the dramatic changes in the region, and allowed his rivals to seize the initiative and set the agenda.”

Ah yes, quoting Ha’aretz’s editor. This is the newspaper which editorialized yesterday that Abbas is really a peace partner because he said that even though he plans to go to the UN to demand a Palestinian state, he accepts that Israel exists. How big of him. Of course, Ha’aretz forgot to mention that Abbas has accepted Israel already, just not as a Jewish state. And of course, now that Israeli MK Ahmed Tibi has joined the PA delegation to the UN, what the Palestinians are trying to do is entirely clear to anybody watching. Just not Ha’aretz. According to Benn, Israel is suffering from the hate of Arab states not because of their leaders’ propaganda over decades through their state-controlled media. Nope, it is because Israel has fortified walls, refuses to change and lets rivals “seize the initiative.”

Okay, that last part is true. Netanyahu lets rivals seize the initiative. He lets Lieberman do it twice a week and he lets Abbas do it twice a month. Of course, Ha’aretz supports Abbas, so what’s their problem with him seizing initiative?

What could Israel have done? The Palestinian Authority, which has made concrete strides in the past five years at building the institutions and security forces of a state in the West Bank — making life there quieter than ever for Israel — finally said to itself: “Our state-building has not prompted Israel to halt settlements or engage in steps to separate, so all we’re doing is sustaining Israel’s occupation. Let’s go to the U.N., get recognized as a state within the 1967 borders and fight Israel that way.” Once this was clear, Israel should have either put out its own peace plan or tried to shape the U.N. diplomacy with its own resolution that reaffirmed the right of both the Palestinian and the Jewish people to a state in historic Palestine and reignited negotiations.

Now this is the most shameful part of Friedman’s article. First of all, the PA made concrete strides not just because the US has funded and trained a PA army, but because Israel supported and assisted in this program. Israel also protected and protects the PA from Hamas. In fact, I remember them going so far as to actually trying to protect a PA minister who was caught on camera trying to seduce a married underling.

Second, much of the state-building progress made by the Palestinians was facilitated by Israel. Removal of many roadblocks, opening of economic channels, support of Bank of Israel head Fischer to his former protegee Fayyad, permission of movement of Palestinian goods, improved conditions for construction of Israeli buildings, homes and business in Judea and Samaria which employ tens of thousands of Palestinians, and respectful treatment of the Palestinian leadership.

Third, Israel offered the Palestinians a peace deal in 2008 that included 100% of Gaza, 95% of the West Bank, 1:1 land exchange on the remaining land, an internationalized Jerusalem (!!!) and all the goodies that had been promised in 2001 at Taba by Barak such as tens of billions of dollars in reparations and a limited return to original Palestinian refugees into Israel proper. The Palestinians walked away from this offer by a sitting Israeli PM.

Fourth, the Palestinians did not return to the table after that offer. On the contrary, they announced in a Washington Post interview just after Obama’s election that they intended to delay all talks while Netanyahu was in power so as to have Obama’s pressure topple the Israeli government.

So how is it Israel’s fault that they didn’t offer yet another peace plan with compromises in it that were unacceptable to the Palestinians in 2008? Why on earth would any sane government or negotiator even consider such a move? It would be folly.

Mr. Netanyahu did neither. Now the U.S. is scrambling to defuse the crisis, so the U.S. does not have to cast a U.N. veto on a Palestinian state, which could be disastrous in an Arab world increasingly moving toward more popular self-rule.

The US has to cast a veto or it might as well throw out the UN rule book. The Oslo Accords are based on UNSCR 242 and 338. These are international agreements signed by the Palestinians and committing them to honor and abide these two resolutions. By moving ahead unilaterally, they are in violation of Oslo, of 242/338, of all deals signed under the US’s leadership since 1994 and of all Quartet declarations. The US has to veto or it simply accepts that all the deals it has worked out are not just null and void but actually carry no weight whatsoever.

Perhaps Mr. Friedman can explain to the rest of us how the US will be able to manage any further diplomatic engagements anywhere in the world where it seeks to influence an outcome if the agreements which are signed under the watchful eyes of its presidents, secretaries of state and other officials are not worth the paper on which they are written?

Oh, and what is this business about “popular self-rule?” Should the US appease an Arab world if their “popular self-rule” determines that women should not be permitted to drive or may be mutilated or killed in honor killings? Should it support that world if the “popular self-rule” brings about military juntas as we see now in Egypt? Or perhaps the US should maintain a strong backbone and keep supporting democracies and strong civil rights?

On Turkey, the Obama team and Mr. Netanyahu’s lawyers worked tirelessly these last two months to resolve the crisis stemming from the killing by Israeli commandos of Turkish civilians in the May 2010 Turkish aid flotilla that recklessly tried to land in Gaza. Turkey was demanding an apology. According to an exhaustive article about the talks by the Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, the two sides agreed that Israel would apologize only for “operational mistakes” and the Turks would agree to not raise legal claims. Bibi then undercut his own lawyers and rejected the deal, out of national pride and fear that Mr. Lieberman would use it against him. So Turkey threw out the Israeli ambassador.

Ah yes, national pride. Gosh darn it, Israel should have apologized to appease Turkey even though Turkey had already expressed intense hostility to Israel after Cast Lead. Remember Erdogan getting up from a stage in anger after Peres refused to let him attack Israel unreasonably? I remember it clearly. It appears, in hindsight, that Turkey was pushing for an apology to avoid the humiliation of the Palmer Report’s denial of Turkey’s false claim that the blockade on Gaza is illegal. So again, why should Israel apologize? How would such an apology assuage a Turkish leadership intent on establishing its Islamic bona fides in the region with Israel as its punching bag? It wouldn’t.

As for Egypt, stability has left the building there and any new Egyptian government is going to be subjected to more populist pressures on Israel. Some of this is unavoidable, but why not have a strategy to minimize it by Israel putting a real peace map on the table?

Because Israel offered real peace in 2008 and 2001 and 2000 and has made overtures under Netanyahu including the freezing of settlements and the Palestinians refused to budge?

I have great sympathy for Israel’s strategic dilemma and no illusions about its enemies. But Israel today is giving its friends — and President Obama’s one of them — nothing to defend it with. Israel can fight with everyone or it can choose not to surrender but to blunt these trends with a peace overture that fair-minded people would recognize as serious, and thereby reduce its isolation.

Really? Tell us, Mr. Friedman, since Olmert offered his deal in 2008 and Obama was elected in 2008, did Obama praise Israel’s peace deal and reduce Israel’s isolation or did he go to Cairo and increase its isolation?

Unfortunately, Israel today does not have a leader or a cabinet for such subtle diplomacy.

Correct. Sadly.

Of course, you need a willing partner and Israel has no partner among the Palestinian leadership.

One can only hope that the Israeli people will recognize this before this government plunges Israel into deeper global isolation

Yes, a valid comment. Although the global isolation is not Israel’s fault and the Arab “Spring” and its outcome are not Israel’s fault, and the automatic anti-Israel at the UN General Assembly or the UNHRC are not Israel’s fault, and Turkish motives are not Israel’s fault. I mean, come on, blame somebody else for a change!

and drags America along with it.

Second most shameful quote from this essay. Israel hasn’t dragged the US into anything. US foreign policy under this Administration has been an abysmal failure in large part because it has vilified Israel, undercut a strong ally in doing so, weakened Israel to a point where its enemies began to sniff blood, showed a willingness to ignore former commitments made by US leaders, showed a willingness to ignore former efforts at peace by its ally Israel and essentially undermined on numerous occasions America’s moral stance as perceived in the rest of the world by supporting or remaining silent when some regimes behaved egregiously (Iran and its election come to mind as does this Administration’s hypocrisy on Syria as it led attacks on Libya).

Perhaps if the US had maintained a consistent foreign policy, not one of appeasement for some of the worst characters on the world stage, then it wouldn’t have been dragged down at all. That it has is not Israel’s fault, but it is the fault of America’s current leadership as it stumbles from one crisis to another with the feeling that it can criticize friends and coddle enemies. Who would have ever thought we’d miss Bush Jr.? God, how I miss that fool.

Thomas Friedman is out to lunch with this essay.

Thomas Friedman Tries to Get Rid of His Hiccups

7 Comments

  1. AlexK

    9/19/2011 at 11:57 am

    I love it. Forget the Arab Spring. It’s finally time: Jewish Spring in America! Glad to see you guys hitting reality. It’s tender.

  2. Rabbi Yonah

    9/19/2011 at 2:32 pm

    Thank you. This is the most cogent analysis of the situation and incompetence at the NY Times.

  3. Jeffrey Bergman

    9/19/2011 at 4:03 pm

    Nice article, middle.

    The liberal left, in America and in Israel, is trying to fit reality in to their ideological paradigm – the occupation is the cause of the conflict, the Palestinians want their own state living in peace with Israel, the conflict is about land, Israeli policies are the cause of Palestinian/Arab/Muslim hatred towards it.

    None of that’s true, in fact the opposite is true in each case, but the liberal left’s attachment to their ideology blinds them to reality. Their shrillness and level of attack is going to increase, because as more and more of us see reality for what it is (I include myself, I’m a former left-winger myself, one could even say a premature supporter of the Oslo process) their power will inevitably decline.

    It’s important to remember also that these attacks and misrepresentations of the truth have a great deal to do with US domestic politics. After all, if Obama’s policies are putting Israel in great danger, and they are, it is much harder to get American Jews to vote for Obama, or the Democratic Party in general.

    Divorce is always hard. But our greatest duty as Jews who care about Israel at this moment in history is to help our fellow Jews see who our current allies are, and who they aren’t, and to divorce ourselves as a community from it’s unwavering, automatic support for the Democratic party and to become a truly independent, or at least bi-partisan, voting bloc.

  4. Jeffrey Bergman

    9/19/2011 at 4:41 pm

    By the way, here’s Isi Leibler on the issue of American Jewish political allegiance:

    jpost.com/Opin...

    “If Jews are no longer to be taken for granted by any political party, it will have major long-term repercussions.

    Most important of all, it will represent a healthy sign of normalcy and maturity on the part of the Jewish community not to be considered an automatic supporter of any political party. Even though the Jewish community is not monolithic and incorporates a wide variety of different, even opposing viewpoints, the influence of Jews in relation to issues most of its adherents regard as vital to their interests would be strengthened. It would certainly encourage a more even-handed US policy towards Israel if no party could rely on the automatic support of the Jews. Ironically, in the long term, it would also strengthen bi-partisanship towards Israel, which for the first time is now being questioned.

    In my next column, I will explore how – in stark contrast to the response at the Jewish grassroots level – the Jewish leadership establishment appears somewhat desperate not to be perceived as being in any way critical of the Obama administration.”

  5. Tom Morrissey

    9/27/2011 at 2:15 pm

    Nice job, Middle. I’ll give Friedman credit for at least a modest point, that Israel could’ve used Abbas’s statehood initiative as a means of creating leverage– perhaps this has happened behind the scenes, as France and Spain have both recently endorsed the need to reaffirm Israel’s status as a Jewish state. I’d have been tempted to offer to vote for Palestinian statehood at the UN, in exchange for full Arab recognition of Israel, complete with ambassadors and all the rest.

  6. Tom Morrissey

    9/27/2011 at 2:23 pm

    ….And fwiw, US Jews will not abandon Barack Obama or the Democratic Party in 2012. Not gonna happen.

    • themiddle

      9/27/2011 at 6:22 pm

      It’s all up to how the Republicans play their game. If they nominate Romney, I think Obama will have a challenging time with the Jewish vote. With Perry or Bachman, my guess is Obama will have a much easier time. I’ve never seen such uncertainty among Jewish voters. Friends and acquaintances of long-standing Democratic affiliation are speaking to me about Obama with a lot of anger and it’s not just about Israel, it’s also about the economy and the sense the banks got away with evil. Although, he probably earned a lot of goodwill with his UN speech, support for Israel in the last couple of weeks including saving the security guys from the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the announcement that the US had sold the bunker buster bombs to Israel.

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