Thomas Friedman Bashes the Palestinians, Again!

New York Times, Part 2
There He Goes Again:
Friedman Bashes Palestinians

by Kathleen Christison
former CIA political analyst

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman loves to lecture Palestinians. One might almost think he has some kind of obsession, that Palestinians are the people he most loves to hate. He probably writes more of his patronizing “Dear so-and-so” memos to or about Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat than anyone else. He would protest that his only beef is with Arafat, not with the Palestinians as a whole, that he supports the Palestinians’ right to a state and frequently criticizes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Israeli settlement construction in those territories. And he does, it’s true. The trouble is that Friedman distorts-he distorts regularly and, given the ready availability of accurate information on the Palestinians, one must assume that he distorts deliberately.

The significance of Friedman’s distortions is that they carry immense weight. He is probably the most widely read opinion columnist in the U.S., certainly on foreign affairs. He is a best-selling author, a sought-after television commentator, the poster boy of globalization, and one of the country’s most highly regarded commentators on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He hobnobs with policymakers; the political bent of the current administration is not particularly his cup of tea, but he has clearly had good relationships with key policymakers in past administrations, including that of George Bush Sr., and his views unquestionably have an impact on the thinking of policymakers. He is far and away the author most often mentioned to me by people who assume I must be an admirer, as having written the gospel on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, either in his regular columns or in his oft-reprinted and oft-updated book, From Beirut to Jerusalem.

Friedman’s most recent and perhaps most blatant contribution to yellow journalism came on August 18, in a column deriding the Palestinians. Entitled “Fog of War,” the column’s real intent was to urge President Bush to develop a “clearly focused end, means and rationale” before he goes to war against Iraq. But on the way to making this point, Friedman managed to devote fully three-quarters of the column to his view of Palestinian failings. Urging a clear focus on Bush is a wise admonition (although one might rather wish that Friedman had advocated no war at all). But the kick at the Palestinians was neither a fair and accurate assessment of the Palestinians nor a particularly illuminating way to launch into Bush’s failings as a strategic planner.

Friedman began by quoting from a Washington Post article of a few days earlier analyzing a series of strategy meetings among various Palestinian factions. The Post lead said the secret talks had been designed to determine the “ground rules for their uprising against Israel, trying to agree on such fundamental issues as why they are fighting, what they need to end the conflict and whether suicide bombings are a legitimate weapon.” Feigning shock, Friedman says snidely, “Let me repeat that in case you missed it: two years into the Palestinian uprising, Palestinian factions were meeting to determine why they are fighting and whether their means are legitimate.” The Palestinians are fools, in other words, and don’t even know what they’re fighting for.

Using the Post’s simplified lead to describe the Palestinians’ ability to define their objectives does justice neither to the Post nor to the Palestinians. The Post article was a lengthy, in-depth analysis of a Palestinian attempt to unify several factions with divergent goals and to engage in the kind of strategic reassessment that is vital for any nation struggling for its existence. Friedman chose to miss the point both of the article and of the reassessment. In addition, by repeating the lead in his own words, Friedman distorted it. What the lead said was that the Palestinians were studying whether suicide bombings are a legitimate weapon, implying that bombings are not the only or even necessarily the primary weapon; what Friedman said it said was that Palestinians were studying “whether their means are legitimate,” implying that suicide bombings are the only weapon.

This is in fact the clear implication throughout his column: that Palestinians are only terrorists, that they use only suicide bombings, that they have no goal in mind other than killing Jews, that they are not resisting Israeli occupation but pursuing the extermination of Israel-“death to Israel,” as he puts it. Furthermore, Friedman asserts, anyone who argues otherwise is simply part of the Palestinians’ “chorus in the Western diplomatic corps and mediatheir apologists and enablers.” Everyone should know that the intifada is actually “a reckless, pointless, foolish adventure”–chiefly because “from the moment this uprising began” Friedman himself told us this (wise man that he is). The Palestinians couldn’t possibly be resisting the occupation because, after all, two years ago at Camp David Israel and the U.S. gave them “a credible opening diplomatic offer to end the occupation”–an offer that, Friedman claims, “would have satisfied the vast majority of their aspirations for statehood.”

This is vintage Friedman. Since the Camp David summit collapsed, he has been a principal propounder of the “myth of the generous offer”–the notion that Israel proposed a nearly perfect deal to end the occupation, grant the Palestinians a fully sovereign state in the West Bank and Jerusalem, eliminate Israeli settlements, and give Palestinians half of Jerusalem. But, he has always claimed, the Palestinians rejected the offer because, at bottom, they really want to see Israel destroyed and could not bite the peace bullet. Although Friedman has always been a harsh critic of Israeli settlements, he has never made the connection that it is precisely the settlements and Israel’s oppressive occupation–and the clear belief among Palestinians that these would never end–that cause Palestinian discontent and finally led to the intifada. Early in the intifada, he wrote that it was “fatuous nonsense” to think that Palestinians are “only enraged about settlements.Their grievance is not just with Israeli settlements, but with Israel. Most Palestinians still do not accept that the Jews have any authentic right to be here.” He never provides evidence to support this assertion.

To reach this conclusion, Friedman conveniently ignores, and in his recent column flatly denies, some of the facts of the situation: the fact, for instance, that the Israeli offer at Camp David would have annexed to Israel so many settlements (housing 80% of the 200,000 settlers on the West Bank) and so much of the settlers’ vast road network that the Palestinian so–called “state” would have been broken into three almost totally non-contiguous segments, each connected only by a narrow one- or two-mile-wide neck of land, plus a fourth section in Gaza–a reality that would have rendered the “state” non-viable, indefensible and, perhaps most important, perpetually under Israeli domination.

In answer to a question on this subject at a panel discussion in Washington a year ago, Friedman flippantly dismissed the notion that territories can be “almost” non-contiguous, saying this is like being “almost” pregnant: you either are or you aren’t. In fact, however, when it is the defensibility of Israeli territory that’s at issue, “almost non-contiguous” is a significant red flag. Inside its 1967 borders, the central section of Israel in the area of Tel Aviv is only about ten miles wide, and most Israelis are firm in their absolute rejection of any agreement that would require Israel to return to borders that would again leave it with its old “narrow waist,” a waist loudly proclaimed to be “almost non-contiguous” and thus totally indefensible. Palestinian indefensibility seems not to concern Friedman.

In his August 18 column, Friedman maintains that Palestinians “never justified this ruinous war” and contends that a Palestinian “peace overture to improve [Israel’s] offers would have gotten them so much more and spared them so much pain.” He seems to have forgotten a few things: that the Palestinians have clearly justified their struggle as a resistance to the occupation; that the Palestinians’ “peace overture” was and remains the two-state formula that would recognize an Israeli state inside its 1967 borders in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 242 and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza; that the Palestinians did continue to negotiate after Camp David; and that both Israel and the Palestinians continued to improve on the deal on the table (until Ariel Sharon and George Bush emerged on the scene and halted all negotiations). More importantly, Friedman also forgets that the atmosphere in the aftermath of the Camp David collapse–an atmosphere fostered by President Bill Clinton, as well as by Israel, and participated in enthusiastically by Friedman himself–was so poisonously anti-Palestinian that the Palestinian “street” was given to believe there was no hope whatsoever of ever ending the occupation.

When Camp David broke up, the U.S. and Israel, and Thomas Friedman as well, immediately heaped blame on the Palestinians for not accepting what was widely described as “the best offer any Israeli would ever make.” They were saying to the Palestinians-who, it’s important to remember, had been enduring Israeli occupation for a third of a century, including the steady consolidation of Israeli control throughout the seven years of the so-called peace process-that the “opening offer” that Friedman now speaks of was all there would ever be and that the occupation would not end unless Palestinians signed on to the unacceptable terms dictated by Israel. The day after the summit disbanded, Friedman wrote a column hailing Israel and observing that “there is in the U.S. view a level of Israeli compromise that is right and fair, and beyond which Israel should not be expected to go. It is not just a bottomless pit of giveaways.” The signal to the Palestinians-from Friedman, as well as from virtually every Israeli and every U.S. policymaker-was unmistakable: that Palestinians would never gain their freedom from Israeli domination. This is the atmosphere in which the intifada began.

Friedman writes that the first rule of warfare is “never launch a war that you can’t explain to your people and the world on a bumper sticker” and says that the Palestinians not only can’t explain their goals this briefly, but don’t even know what they are. In fact, however, despite Friedman’s disdain, Palestinians do know what they’re fighting for, do have justice on their side, and could write that bumper sticker easily. It would read, “It’s the occupation, stupid.” This is precisely the message Friedman does not want to hear.

Kathleen Christison worked for 16 years as a political analyst with the CIA, dealing first with Vietnam and then with the Middle East for her last seven years with the Agency before resigning in 1979. Since leaving the CIA, she has been a free-lance writer, dealing primarily with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her book, “Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy,” was published by the University of California Press and reissued in paperback with an update in October 2001. A second book, “The Wound of Dispossession: Telling the Palestinian Story,” was published in March 2002. Both Kathy and her husband Bill, also a former CIA analyst, are regular contributors to the CounterPunch website.

Other CounterPunch articles by Bill and Kathleen Christison:

Bill Christison: Disastrous Foreign Policies
of the US Part 3: What Can We Do About It?
July 8, 2002

Kathleen Christison: The Story of Resolution 242, How the US Sold Out the Palestinians,
June 28, 2002

Kathleen Christison: Israel and Ethics, May 11, 2002

Bill Christison: The Disastrous Foreign
Policies of the United States
, May 10, 2002

Kathleen Christison: Before There Was Terrorism, May 2, 2002

Bill Christison: Oil and the Middle East, April 6, 2002

Bill Christison: Why the War on Terror Won’t Work, March 5, 2002


Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. Kathleen Christison is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.