In his weekly Canadian Jewish News media analysis column “According to Reports,” Paul Michaels, CIC Director of Communications, says that influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is backtracking on his view of Israel.
In the aftermath of 9/11, when it was fashionable in many circles to link Muslim “outrage” over Israel and U.S. Mideast policy to these horrific attacks, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman would have none of it. In a series of pieces Friedman argued that the Arab and Muslim worlds needed to stop blaming others and instead look honestly and critically at their own failures to provide freedom, economic opportunity and hope to their people.
In his March 31, 2002 column, “Suicidal Lies,” Friedman criticized then-Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat for refusing to show any interest in Palestinian state-building, and for walking away from former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s peace plan for the creation of this state. Instead, Arafat was busy attacking Israeli civilians with wave after wave of suicide bombers. Friedman insisted that Israel’s defeat of these attacks was “vital to the security of every American, and indeed…to all of civilization.” His point was that if this form of terrorism succeeds in Israel, other countries – including the U.S. would be at greater risk for the same. “That is why,” Friedman wrote, “the whole world must see this Palestinian suicide strategy defeated.”
Now, however, even Friedman himself appears to have forgotten what he wrote just a few short years ago. He’s joined the more traditional “linkage” crowd, and in a way that is, frankly, shocking ub its superficiality.
In his March 28 New York Times piece, "Hobby or Necessity," Friedman maintained that with large numbers of U.S. troops fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are "more in need than ever of Muslim good will to protect themselves and defeat Muslim extremists," and that an essential way to achieve this is to secure "Israeli-Palestinian peace," with the onus on Israel.
Linking Israel in this way to broader American fortunes in the region has, for many, a widespread surface appeal, but it’s spurious.
While no one would argue that the goal of peace between Israelis and Palestinians isn’t important, even vital, this is so for the sake of Israelis and Palestinians themselves. It's not because peace is going to assuage extremists (who in any event demand that Israel be destroyed) or even provide “Muslim goodwill” for the protection of U.S. troops.
Friedman bolstered his argument as follows: "Both [U.S.] Vice-President Joe Biden and Gen. David Petraeus have been quoted recently as saying that the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict foments anti-U.S. sentiments, because of the perception that America usually sides with Israel, and these sentiments are exploited by Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran to generate anti-Americanism that complicates life for our soldiers in the region. I wouldn’t exaggerate this, but I would not dismiss it either."
What Friedman did not say, however, is that both Biden and Petraeus have denied making this linkage. (Jeffrey Goldberg accurately explained Biden’s position back on March 16 in The Atlantic, and Max Boot did the same regarding Petraeus’s position in his Mar. 18 blog for Commentary.)
On March 25, the Jerusalem Post reported that General Petraeus called IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to assure him that comments attributed to him – claiming Israeli intransigence was a problem for the U.S. military and was fomenting conflict – were not true.
Yet, fully three days later, here’s Friedman referring only to Biden and Petraeus having been “widely quoted” saying, in effect, that Israel’s behaviour is putting the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk.
In his April 1 Jerusalem Post blog, Alan Dershowitz tore into this "linkage" argument at length calling it "entirely false," and "dangerous." "There is," he wrote, "absolutely no correlation between Israeli actions and the safety of American troops – none."
Dershowitz pointed out (as have others) that Islamists attack U.S. troops because of their presence in Iraq and Afghanistan (even, more broadly, because of what the U.S. stands for) not because of Israel, though Israel is for sure always a convenient excuse.
But what an influential columnist such as Friedman needs to rely on are not convenient excuses and myths, but careful, accurate analysis – plus, one might hope, some memory of what he himself has written in the past.