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Tom Friedman’s Special Relationship

The following is an excerpt from The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, blurbed by Alex Cockburn: “Filleting the silliest man on the planet needs a sure scalpel, and Belén Fernández wields hers with deadly finesse.”

In October 2010, during the latest round of the Israeli–Palestinian peace charade, Thomas Friedman is summoned to an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 television in order to defend his recent dispatch “Just Knock It Off,” in which he is critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resistance to a brief continuation of the partial moratorium on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.

The anchor comments that Netanyahu appears to have really gotten under Friedman’s skin this time. Friedman assures her that it is “not about anyone, uh, personal” and explains, amid an abundance of hand flourishes, that he is not asking Israel to sign a deal with the Palestinians specifying “where do we go, where do we withdraw, where do we leave,” but rather to create a “test where you take out all the other extraneous stuff—settlements, settlement building, okay—and you sit across the table, and everybody, now, show me your cards.”

The very reason for Friedman’s critical article and appearance on Channel 2—the settlement issue—has thus been promptly discarded as “extraneous stuff.” No hints are provided as to what non-extraneous stuff might entail; Netanyahu meanwhile evolves into an “interesting,” “engaging,” and “funny” character for whom Friedman professes sympathy, despite having hoped in 2005 for the same man to become head of Likud so that the party would “be free to be itself—to represent the lunatic right in Israel, become a fringe party and drive over a cliff.”

That Friedman is able to advertise himself as a serious critic of Israel while simultaneously reiterating that the nation “had me at hello” naturally works in the favor of the Israeli right wing, shifting the spectrum of permissible discourse such that any substantive criticism can be rejected as extremist. Friedman himself writes about the importance of refraining from “destructive criticism” of Israel, done without first “convey[ing] to Israelis that you understand the world they’re living in” by listing atrocities committed by regional Arabs and Muslims, such as the killing of Iraqi Shiites by Iraqi Sunnis. “Destructive critics,” we are told, seek to “delegitimize Israel” by “dismiss[ing] Gaza as an Israeli prison, without ever mentioning that had Hamas decided … to turn it into Dubai rather than Tehran, Israel would have behaved differently, too.” The problem with this sort of logic is that, even if it could be scientifically argued that Gaza has been turned into Tehran, such transformations are not illegal under international humanitarian law, whereas Israel’s blockade of Gaza is. It is furthermore unclear why, if the illegal use of white phosphorus munitions against honorary Tehrans is not a problem, Friedman finds it appalling that the Iranian regime is capable of attacking civilians with more mundane weaponry in the real Tehran.

In keeping with the goal of constructive criticism, Friedman begins his “Just Knock It Off ” lecture with the following disclaimer: “Say what you want about Israel’s obstinacy at times, it remains the only country in the United Nations that another U.N. member, Iran, has openly expressed the hope that it be wiped off the map. And that same country, Iran, is trying to build a nuclear weapon.” Without bothering to comment on Israel’s existing nuclear arsenal or to explain the relevance of the country’s U.N. membership given its history of flouting the organization’s resolutions, Friedman proceeds to the gist of the article: Netanyahu should take advantage of the opportunity to test whether the current leaders of the Palestinian Authority are perhaps valid partners for peace.

The 2010 peace test is not the first to be administered to Palestinians. As with the Iraq war, Friedman regularly detects critical junctures in the Arab–Israeli conflict and issues ultimatums to relevant parties, which generally prove untenable and have to be reissued with some variation down the line. The onus is always ultimately on the Arab half of the conflict, however, to prove itself in one way or another, and Arab leaders are variously instructed to stage a “psychological breakthrough” to the Israeli public, conduct an “emotional appeal,” and forge a “bond of trust” in order to assure Israelis of their “legitimate right … not to be randomly blown up at the grocery store.” It is unclear how Arabs, who do not understand their own psychology and have to have Palestinian “collective madness” and “narcissistic rage” explained to them by Friedman and his coterie of pro-Israel pundits, are nonetheless expected to understand Israeli psychology and how to appeal to it. Israeli leaders are meanwhile not required to recognize legitimate rights of Palestinians, such as to not to be bulldozed in their homes.

The potential effectiveness of Arab emotional overtures to the Israeli public is additionally called into question by Friedman’s scattered assessments of the maneuverings of the Israeli regime. In 1997, during Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister, we are informed that he “talks about the peace process as though it were the diplomatic equivalent of taking out the garbage, and signals to Palestinians that his concept of peace may be just a new form of occupation.” The following year Friedman declares: “Mr. Netanyahu’s whole approach to the Palestinians is based on the notion that there is no Palestinian people, with its own interests and politics. That’s why he negotiates with America and gives the Palestinians a choice of accepting what he is willing to offer America or taking nothing.”

Netanyahu nevertheless ascends anew to the post of omniscient peace adjudicator in 2010, tasked by Friedman with determining whether the current leaders of the non-people can be dealt with, shortly after the release of a video in which the prime minister boasts of having derailed the Oslo Accords. What Netanyahu is currently willing to offer America has incidentally been hinted at earlier this same year when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel overlaps with the announcement of new illegal settlement construction in Arab East Jerusalem. According to Friedman, the proper response is for Biden to snap his notebook shut and return from whence he came, leaving the following note for the Israeli government: “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” Seven months later, drunk drivers become “interesting” and “funny” administrators of peace tests, and settlements become “extraneous.” (Seven months after that, Palestinians are saddled with Friedman’s latest surefire formula for achieving nothing, and he swears that, if thousands of them simply march to Jerusalem every Friday carrying an olive branch in one hand and a bilingual sign in the other specifying a desire for two states based on the 1967 borders “with mutually agreed adjustments,” it will rapidly “become a global news event” and will result in the uploading to YouTube of original peace maps designed by the marchers in collaboration with invited delegations of other Arab and Israeli marchers.)

More remarkable than Friedman’s intermittent sympathy for Netanyahu, meanwhile, is his rehabilitation of Ariel Sharon, found by Israel’s Kahan Commission to bear “personal responsibility” as Israeli Minister of Defense for the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. This particular event, during which approximately two thousand Palestinian refugees are exterminated by Israel’s Lebanese allies, takes place during Friedman’s service as New York Times bureau chief in Beirut and, as he recounts in From Beirut to Jerusalem, constitutes “something of a personal crisis” for him.

The Israel Friedman encounters during the war in Lebanon is “not the heroic Israel I had been taught to identify with.” This is not surprising, given obvious aesthetic differences between, on the one hand, scenes of an Israeli invasion that kills 17,500 people, primarily civilians, and scenes from high school summers spent at a kibbutz south of Haifa on the other. The latter hand merits recollections like: “Everything and everyone in the country seemed larger than life. Every soldier was a hero, every politician a statesman, every girl a knockout.”

Friedman’s description in From Beirut of the role of the Six-Day War in igniting the “romance” between Israel and American Jews, who “could not embrace Israel enough; they could not fuse their own identities with Israel enough” comes with the accompanying affidavit: “I know. I was the epitome of this transformation.” Friedman elaborates:

“It was Israel’s victory in the 1967 war which prompted me to assert my own Jewishness—not five years of Hebrew school as a young boy, not five summers at Herzl Camp in Wisconsin, and not my bar mitzvah. Hebrew school only embarrassed me, because I had to get on the Hebrew bus in front of the Gentile kids at my elementary school, and my bar mitzvah bored me, except for opening the envelopes stuffed with money. But Israel as a badge of pride actually saved me as a Jew at a time when I easily could have drifted away, not only from religious practice, but from Jewish communal identification altogether.”

Someone who openly adopts a state founded on a policy of ethnic cleansing as a personal “badge of pride” does not, of course, qualify as an unbiased commentator on the Middle East. Consider Friedman’s celebrated treatment of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which he professes to initially take “seriously as a blot on Israel and the Jewish people,” and which causes him to “boil … with anger—anger which I worked out by reporting with all the skill I could muster on exactly what happened in those camps.” Laboring “day and night” on a four-page spread for the New York Times, Friedman acknowledges being driven by “conflicting impulses” to both “nail [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and [Ariel] Sharon … in the hope that this would help get rid of them” and to “prove Begin and Sharon innocent.” Surmises the impending Pulitzer recipient: “Although an ‘objective’ journalist is not supposed to have such emotions, the truth is they made me a better reporter.”

Actually, the truth is that Friedman’s emotions enable him to cast himself, and not the two thousand slaughtered Palestinians, as the real victim of Sabra and Shatila, an arrangement spelled out quite clearly in his recounting of his exclusive interview with Israeli commander in Lebanon, Major General Amir Drori:

“I must admit I was not professionally detached in this interview. I banged the table with my fist and shouted at Drori, ‘How could you do this? How could you not see [what was happening in the camps]? How could you not know?’ But what I was really saying, in a very selfish way, was ‘How could you do this to me, you bastards? I always thought you were different. I always thought we were different.’”

Friedman’s questions remain rhetorical, and “so the next morning I buried Amir Drori on the front page of the New York Times, and along with him every illusion I ever held about the Jewish state.” The burial is hardly as dramatic as Friedman implies, though it does contain many more details of Arab suffering than he is inclined to report in later years. Acknowledging that the Israelis equipped the Lebanese militia assassins “with at least some of their arms and provisions and assisted them with flares during nighttime operations,” and that the southern end of Shatila camp “can be seen very clearly with the naked eye from the Kuwaiti Embassy traffic circle—the site of the telescope and binocular-equipped Israeli observation post,” Friedman nonetheless finds it necessary to temper the incriminating truth with the following bizarre disclaimer: “Whether the Israelis actually looked down and saw what was happening is unknown.”

Compare this assessment with that provided by veteran British journalist Robert Fisk, who does not possess a badge of pride called Israel and has never harbored any illusions as to Israeli “purity of arms.” Entering Sabra and Shatila immediately after the massacre, Fisk reports, regarding its perpetrators, that “their handiwork had clearly been watched—closely observed—by the Israelis, by those same Israelis who were still watching us through their field-glasses.” It is safe to assume that, had the positions of the Israelis and Palestinians been somehow reversed in the camps, Friedman would have wasted no time in reasoning that persons inside observation posts observe.

The conclusion of Friedman’s revolutionary, Pulitzer-inducing exposé consists merely of a toned-downed version of the Israeli fabrication that there were two thousand Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) guerrillas inside Sabra and Shatila: “Clearly there were some, but the weight of the evidence suggests that the number was in the low hundreds at most.” As for the permanence of the burial of illusions about the Jewish state, Friedman writes in From Beirut in 1989: “I’ll always want [Israel] to be the country I imagined in my youth. But what the hell, she’s mine, and for a forty-year-old, she ain’t too shabby.”

Belén Fernández is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

This excerpt is from The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work

Copyright © Belén Fernández 2011

Published by Verso Books

Reprinted here with permission.

All quotes properly cited in original.

More articles by:

Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso, and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon.

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