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.