Thomas Friedman, barometer of a biased mainstream middle

by Yaniv Reich on December 13, 2010

My dear aunt (of letter fame) loves to think of me as biased (against Israel).  I have devoted a decade or two to the patient explanation of why this opinion is false—and demonstrably so.  But in her mind, my stubborn focus on human and civil rights means that I care more about Palestinians than Jews, simply because objective reality is characterized by many times more violations of Palestinian rights by Israelis than the reverse.

Today, she sent me Thomas Friedman’s latest op-ed in the NY Times as an example of an unbiased article, which is tough on both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships and therefore, somehow, more respectable in her eyes.  This striking assertion—that Friedman of all people is unbiased—provides a perfect “teaching moment” because it exposes how normative claims to “moderate” and “unbiased” operate.

Auntie, this is my rebuttal.

First, you are perfectly correct that Friedman is tough in this piece on the Israelis.  In fact, he is clearly pissed, and is writing about it in the NY Times, a locale unaccustomed to such strong criticism of Israel.  He writes:

The failed attempt by the U.S. to bribe Israel with a $3 billion security assistance package, diplomatic cover and advanced F-35 fighter aircraft — if Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu would simply agree to a 90-day settlements freeze to resume talks with the Palestinians — has been enormously clarifying. It demonstrates just how disconnected from reality both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships have become.

Did you get that?  The Israeli insistence on ethnic cleansing, even in the face of an extraordinarily large bribe just to halt temporarily the construction of Jewish-only colonies on stolen land, is evidence of how disconnected the. . . .  Palestinian leadership is?  How about that for a non-sequitur?  This preposterous (il)logical leap is quite telling, even if Friedman goes on to cite some bits of information that he feels characterizes the Palestinian disconnect, because he is forced to contrast actual, continuous Israeli intransigence with irrelevant and straw-man arguments about Palestinian intransigence.

The precise ways that the Israelis have rejected peace in order to colonize the future country they are supposed to be negotiating over are pretty clear.  But what are Friedman’s arguments about the Palestinians?  He accuses them of “sitting over there with their arms folded, waiting for more U.S. assurances or money to persuade them to do what is manifestly in their own interest” (as well as the Israelis, who receive money from the US of an amount roughly 100 times greater than the Palestinians do each year).  No evidence is provided.

A “great two-state deal” or something: Details of the Olmert Plan

Later in the article, Friedman does say something concrete when he criticizes Mahmoud Abbas, unelected president of the Palestinian Authority, for rejecting and “frittering away” Ehud Olmert’s (ex-Israeli PM) “great two-state deal”.  Kind of makes you wonder how great the deal was, no?

According to Olmert’s office (as reported in Ha’aretz), Olmert demanded that Abbas sign a “comprehensive and final agreement” before Israel showed the Palestinians the map so that “it would not be used… in future negotiations the Palestinians sought to conduct.”  This is the crossed-arm rejectionism that Friedman is lambasting the Palestinians for?  For not agreeing to a “comprehensive and final agreement” before they even see what the agreement looks like?  And this is compared to—put on the same scale—as unyielding Israeli colonization?

So what was the “great two-state deal” that the Palestinians never even got to see (but which is being used to disparage them now in the international press)?  Well, it was kept a secret at the time, including from the Knesset, so we had to wait a couple years before a map was provided to the public (it was finally release to Ha’aretz after Olmert was no longer prime minister).  Below, I share a detailed projection of the Olmert plan, which was produced by the Foundation for Middle East Peace:

Olmert Plan. Source: Foundation for Middle East Peace

Israelis might be getting increasingly accustomed to seeing maps like this, but it is critical to realize what is wrong with this picture.  Nowhere are the issues more concentrated—and concerning—than in Jerusalem.  See the following map for details:

Olmert Plan, Jerusalem detail. Source: FMEP.

Ignoring the most obvious point that this proposal attempts to institutionalize the land theft and colonization that has occurred since ’67 (to say nothing of the land grab and ethnic cleansing of ’47/48), Olmert was proposing a Palestinian capital almost entirely ringed by Jewish-only communities, which are connected to each other and Israel, and for which security would be provided by the Israeli military.  This “great two-state deal” therefore ensures that any Palestinian wishing to go to their own national capital would have to pass through Israeli military control, even if only indirect.

The same is true for Gaza.  Olmert proposed a “safe passage” between the Hebron Hills and Gaza, but this land would remain under Israeli sovereignty.  Are you counting how many discrete chunks of Palestinian land—aka Bantustans— there will be in this plan, and therefore how much physical control over future Palestine Israel will have?

Then there is the issue of land swaps and water resources.  Israel proposes to trade the land under the Ariel settlement block with some swathes of land near Gaza and in the Judean desert.  Ariel sits strategically, deliberately, directly on top of the most important underground water aquifer in the West Bank.  And in return Olmert proposes some unpopulated desert?  And where exactly are the Palestinians supposed to get water in sufficient quantities for a state?

Although such an unfair and, from a Palestinian perspective, unacceptable plan is the most the Israelis are willing to offer does not make it any more “moderate”.  We do not need to tailor our ethical positions (or international law) to Israeli colonists’ fetishes. More to the point at hand, however, a failure to sign an agreement ex-ante, before even seeing a map, is certainly nothing like the 42 year old Israeli position on the settlements.  By painting these positions as comparable, Friedman shows precisely where his bias rests.

Negotiating in bad faith

Another charge Friedman levels against the Palestinians is that they should have responded to Obama’s desire for peace talks uncritically and favorably.  What is left unsaid is what the Palestinian Authority could have possibly gained by sitting in talks, as they have for most of the last 19 years, while Israel continues to eat the pizza that they are supposed to negotiate over (as the increasingly popular metaphor goes).  What concessions could the Palestinians possibly extract from the Israelis when the Americans, gift-givers of billions of dollars and incalculable diplomatic protection, couldn’t even get them to stop colonizing Palestine for 90 measly days?  Could the weak Palestinians possibly do better?

The only reason why Abbas is still acting as the unelected president of the Palestinian Authority is because Israel and the US prop up he and his buddies, train them in military and paramilitary methods so as to subcontract security matters to their Palestinian collaborators.  As Tony Karon wisely points out, Abbas can’t make peace with Israel because his Palestinian Authority is not in a state of war with Israel.   He continues:

To suggest that ending the occupation of Palestinian territories that began in 1967 requires that the Palestinians “want it” as much their occupiers do is an abrogation of the moral burden accepted by Mr Obama in his Cairo speech last year. “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” Mr Obama said, citing 60 years of displacement and the humiliations of occupation. “And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

The blunt truth, often camouflaged in the language required by America’s pro-Israel domestic political tilt, is that ending the occupation clearly requires “wanting it” more than the Israelis currently do. The Israelis are clearly comfortable with the status quo, because it has no downside for them.

This is precisely the kind of position that Friedman adopts, and which my aunt believes is “unbiased”.   It is, however, a dangerous perspective to hold, which serves the status quo, i.e. continued Israeli colonization and military occupation.  Akiva Eldar makes the same point in Haaretz today:

Fostering the illusion that the conflict is ending doesn’t bring a solution closer; in fact, the focus on the final-status talks offers an alibi for deepening the occupation. The high and mighty words about two states for two peoples silence the protest voices of a nation that for more than 43 years has lived under the occupation of another nation. The testimonies of 101 discharged soldiers who served in the West Bank over past decade and collected their comments in a book published by Breaking the Silence show that even the status quo Clinton referred to doesn’t reflect the situation.

Contrary to the impression that government spokesmen are trying to create – that Israel is gradually withdrawing from the territories based on the necessary caution dictated by security needs – the soldiers describe a steadfast effort to tighten Israel’s hold on the West Bank and the Palestinian population.

This is precisely the problem with Friedman, and it’s precisely the problem with “blaming both sides equally”.   It favors the powerful, which happen to be, now as for the last 62 years, the Israelis.  To point this out does not mean that I am biased, no matter how much my aunt might like to think so.

The good news is that Israeli rejectionism finally seems to be putting peace process industry myths to rest. 

The struggle for equal rights in a single democracy is getting closer by the day.

Update:

The Israelis give a big finger to Friedman and gloat about the US cave-in. Apparently, Israeli Deputy FM Danny Ayalon also thinks Friedman is biased, telling Israel Hayom: “Tom Friedman’s attitude is superficial, emotional and derogatory”. Hat tip to @didiremez.

Update 2:

+972 mag covers the Olmert Plan.

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1 Gregory Pollock December 14, 2010 at 1:53 am

“The struggle for equal rights in a single democracy is getting closer by the day.”

You are going to have to rely on the Israeli High Court of Justice to get there. And that means you have to fight for the kind of jurisprudence it makes. At some point, bashing most of Israel will have to be replaced with forming a wedge within Israel. The electorate, for some time, will not be with you.

I have come to the view that Israel is (and has been) in a constitutional crisis. The Knesset usurped the Declaration of Independence. If you are Isaeli (I am not), I see the Declaration as your greatest hope. In a sense, all this analysis of quasi international politics acts to avoid the fundamental, internal, Israeli issues. The Knesset is malformed; the Basic Laws are inherantly unstable. A Constitutional Convention cannot reform itself into a legislature, for that means the legislature has no bounds. And that means that the Courts will have to create those bounds–which is what is happening now.

Apartheid and bantustans (sp?) are hiding an even greater problem (if you aren’t Palestinian): the Israeli State is internally mal-founded, irrespective of 1948/9 or 67 or whatnot thereafter. This has lead to the rise of right nationalism and the ethnic cleansing of overt citizens. I have felt for some time that the true fulcrum for change lies among Arab Israeli citizens. And I think the Courts will ultimately side with them. Why? Because the Courts are not the Knesset, and in fact exist, in practice, independently of the Knesset. This is where I would press, unceasingly.

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