Saturday, July 3, 2010

Deconstructing Thomas Friedman

Serious observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer bother with Tom Friedman’s inept columns on that topic. However, he remains the lead foreign policy columnist for the world’s most important newspaper, so presumably he still has influence with readers of the New York Times, probably including policymakers. Assuming that to be the case, it may be worthwhile to occasionally deconstruct some of his more absurd or disingenuous commentaries. (I have examined Friedman’s past record, here.)

Earlier this week Friedman published two opeds on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of them, on the supposed flourishing of the West Bank, still effectively controlled by Israel, received widespread criticism in the blogosphere, including by Phil Weiss and Richard Silverstein. The other, entitled “War, Timeout, War, Time…” (June 25) has received much less attention.

Friedman argues that Israel has bought itself “timeouts” from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by winning a series of wars, but that it needs to do more to bring about real peace, particularly by ending its continuing expansion of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and by more seriously engaging the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations for a two-state settlement. 

Despite these criticisms, Friedman once again perpetuates a number of dangerous myths about Israeli policies. First, in writing that “globally, the campaign to de-legitimize Israel has never been more virulent,” he adopts as his own the latest Israeli propaganda, practically word-for-word. Israelis and their U.S. acolytes typically can find no explanation other than “anti-Semitism” for the increasingly widespread anger—including in the West-- at Israel’s policies and behavior. However, even in most of the Arab world and certainly in the West, the goal is not to “de-legitimize” Israel—thus posing an “existential” threat to its very survival—but to bring about an end to its obviously illegitimate occupation, violent repression, and economic siege of the Gazan people.

To be sure, this time Friedman does not explicitly raise the issue of anti-Semitism to account for criticisms of Israel, as he has done in the past. Nonetheless, the anti-Semitism ploy is the clear subtext of the column, and it functions to absolve Israel of moral accountability and political responsibility for the consequences of its behavior—even behavior that Friedman himself deplores.

Second, Friedman writes that Israel “recently won three short wars”: the war “to dismantle the corrupt Arafat regime,” the war “started by Hezbollah in Lebanon,” and the war “to crush the Hamas missile launchers.” In reality, in terms of their consequences, Israel lost all of those wars, regardless of its short-term military “victories” over essentially defenseless adversaries.

Yes, in 2002 Sharon destroyed Arafat’s Palestinian Authority—but not because it was “corrupt,” (as implied by Friedman), but because Arafat had accepted the principle of a two-state settlement, which would require the end of the Israeli occupation. Aside from its wholly illegitimate purpose of perpetuating the occupation, one of the major consequences of the destruction and humiliation of Arafat’s political organization and institutions was the rise of Hamas and its takeover of Gaza.

It is also true that in 2006, Israel soundly defeated Hezbollah—but in an unnecessary war in which Israel seized upon a pretext in the hope of destroying Hezbollah and its major weaponry, and in which it deliberately caused vast civilian casualties and destruction in southern Lebanon—for the sake of “deterrence,” don’t you know. Today, as even the Israeli “security” experts concede, Hezbollah is stronger than ever, both politically and in terms of the far greater, longer range, more accurate, and more destructive missiles and rockets at its disposal.

As for the 2008-09 Gaza attack, even mainstream Israelis increasingly concede that Israel has suffered devastating political consequences in terms in its global standing, and that Hamas is politically stronger than ever and is the process of rearming itself, despite the ongoing blockade.

Further parroting the standard propaganda, Friedman essentially absolves Israel for its numerous war crimes.  While Friedman concedes that Israel fought the last two wars “without rules,” the fault is not its own, for “it found itself confronting enemies in Gaza and Lebanon armed with rockets, but nested among local civilians,” leaving Israel no choice but to be “forced” to kill those civilians.

However, following the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-09 attack on Gaza, a number of international human rights organizations (among them Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Goldstone Commission) investigated and decisively rejected the claim that most of the Lebanese and Palestinian civilian casualties were caused by Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s use of the civilian population as “human shields,” as the propaganda has it—that is, the placement of weapons and the launching of attacks from densely populated civilian areas.

Beyond the recent Israeli war crimes, Friedman ignores the long and ignoble earlier history of repeated Israeli attacks on Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Egyptian civilians—from the pre-state era through the present (for details, see here) . Far from being “forced” to attack civilians, Israel has deliberately chosen to do so, in order to punish, intimidate, or “deter” peoples and states that it regards as its enemies. Indeed, it is not too strong to say that attacking civilians or their crucially important institutions and infrastructures is the Israeli way of war.

The level of mainstream U.S. media discourse about Israel, though somewhat improved in recent years, is still largely characterized by some mix of ignorance, ideological blindness , dishonesty, or incoherence—all crimes against serious journalism, that is to say, truth. Many commentators could plead mitigation on the grounds that they mean well but were unaware of the facts; however, the ignorance plea is not available to Thomas Friedman.


Paul Lookman said...

For your information, 2 days after the December 2008 Israeli attack on Gaza started, The Washington Post published an open letter ( ) to president-elect Obama from Jean-François Angevin-Romey, a retired colonel from the US army. The letter was removed from the Post’s website, but timely picked up by Newsvine, part of the American news network MSNBC. The letter makes very interesting reading, also in today’s situation. On 30 June, I published ( ) an article (in Dutch) around the open letter, focusing on a debate (in French) with Angevin-Romey on the French TV station France 24 and putting things in perspective by quoting an article from your British collegue Gilbert Achcar (London University), of which a key paragraph reads: "Over the last decades Israel has managed to antagonize a formidable range of forces that were not part of its enemy spectrum until then. It has already lost quite a few teeth in attempting to subdue Lebanon, where it faced the firm resistance spirit of Hezbollah combatants resorting to their ‘asymmetric’ advantage as guerrilla fighters in defending their land against a conventional army. The increasing levels of hatred sown in the whole Middle East by western invasions, as well as by Israeli violence, are fostering the rise of an ‘apocalyptic terrorism’ that contemplates resorting to weapons of mass destruction as another ‘asymmetric’ means of offsetting the overwhelming military superiority of its enemies. Last but certainly not least, Israel is now facing the prospect, in the short or medium term, of a nuclear-armed Iran - a development that would bring the region dangerously close to a nuclear holocaust if Israel keeps threatening to launch military strikes".

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your statement that Israel defeated Hezbollah in 2006 in Lebanon. Although Lebanon suffered a great deal, Hezbollah forced Israel to withdraw.

Anonymous said...

After the 2006 Lebanon War, the Israeli government appointed the Winograd Committee to investigate the war and its results. (It is usually called the Winograd Commission, but the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls it the "Winograd Committee" on its website, where it published conclusions of the Committee's report.)

Here are some quotes from the report:

"11. Overall, we regard the 2nd Lebanon war as a serious missed opportunity. Israel initiated a long war, which ended without its clear military victory. A semi-military organization of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages. The barrage of rockets aimed at Israel's civilian population lasted throughout the war, and the IDF did not provide an effective response to it. The fabric of life under fire was seriously disrupted, and many civilians either left their home temporarily or spent their time in shelters. After a long period of using only standoff fire power and limited ground activities, Israel initiated a large scale ground offensive, very close to the Security Council resolution imposing a cease fire. This offensive did not result in military gains and was not completed. These facts had far-reaching implications for us, as well as for our enemies, our neighbors, and our friends in the region and around the world."

"20. All in all, the IDF failed, especially because of the conduct of the high command and the ground forces, to provide an effective military response to the challenge posed to it by the war in Lebanon, and thus failed to provide the political echelon with a military achievement that could have served as the basis for political and diplomatic action. Responsibility for this outcomes lies mainly with the IDF, but the misfit between the mode of action and the goals determined by the political echelon share responsibility."

"29. True, in hindsight, the large ground operation did not achieve its goals of limiting the rocket fire and changing the picture of the war. It is not clear what the ground operation contributed to speeding up the diplomatic achievement or improving it. It is also unclear to what extent starting the ground offensive affected the reactions of the government of Lebanon and Hezbollah to the ceasefire."

Frankly, this does not sound like a victory, despite Tom Friedman's idiotic claims.