by Richard Falk
This piece is crossposted from Global Justice in the 21st Century, the blog of JWE Board Member Richard Falk.
Listen Closely to the Israeli Discourse in an American Liberal Idiom: Geopolitical Dreams, Ethical Nightmares
Thomas Friedman is both an echo of the liberal establishment and a media force to be reckoned with when it comes to post-cold war, post-Trump America. Known for championing the excesses of modernity by conceiving of technology, markets, capital flows, permissive social norms, and science-based truth and rationality as alone capable of offering promises of a good life for everyone. Friedman’s tone has always been arrogant and condescending. He is never shy about offering the rich and powerful the benefit of his technocratic wisdom. When it comes to foreign policy especially in the Middle East, and most particularly where Israel is involved, Friedman seeks to mount a guru’s pedestal so as to position himself above the fray, yet he never departs from the party line that unconditionally affirms Israel while being blind to Palestinian grievances and hostile to Palestinian resistance and global solidarity initiatives. In other words, Friedman is to liberal Zionism, what Sheldon Adelson was to militant Zionism as epitomized by the Netanyahu leadership, but whose stance is endorsed by the spectrum of right-wing political parties in Israel that dominate the scene when it comes to victimizing the Palestinian people.
Yet even judging by the low standards that Friedman has set for himself over the years, his most recent NY Times opinion piece was as grotesque as informed commentary on the Middle East can become, especially if read carefully, and with a critical eye. Published as an opinion piece on March 2nd with a title that is as foolishly flippant as the text that follows is pernicious: “Jumping Jehoshaphat: Have You Seen How Many Israelis Just Visited the U.A.E.” As if Israeli shopping trips to Dubai or Abu Dubai are political signposts indicating that the region has started to overlook the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, and get on with the more important work of servicing consumers and tourists. If a spike in U.A.E. shopping is one sign, the ICC decision of February 5th to proceed further with investigate well-evidenced allegations of Israeli criminality in Occupied Palestine points in quite a different direction. It seems revealing that this latter development does not warrant even a nod of recognition in Friedman’s warped imagination that heeds market signals far more than international law grievances, especially if put forth by adversaries of the U.S. or Israel.
It is tempting to deal comprehensively with the several perversions of policy encountered in the course of a journalistic piece of less than 1,000 words, but I will mention only those that seem most outrageous from the perspective of law, morality, and transparency. The piece can be read as above all a promotional boost for the normalization agreements reached in the last weeks of the Trump presidency, a triumph of Washington bullying governments. It not only gave Israel a big political victory but helped show the folks back home that Trump’s style of diplomacy succeeded where his more highminded predecessors had failed. Despite being a strident critic of Trump in conformity with his liberal persona, Friedman has this to say about the normalization agreements, which he further blesses by adopting the self-glorifying name of the Abraham Accords bestowed by supporters: “I believed from the start that the opening between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan—forged by Jared Kushner and Donald Trump could be game-changing.” Not a word about the arms deals and diplomatic payoffs made to twist the arms of the Arab governments, and not even a notation that this normalization ploy was the Trumpist culmination of carrying pro-Israeli partisanship to its extremes, which meant proceeding as if the Palestinians are to be seen nor heard as little as possible, and certainly never acknowledged.
Friedman goes on to say that it is too soon to know whether this good news will go further, recalling his disappointment that the once seemingly hopeful bonding of Israel with Lebanese Christians in the early 1980s turned out to be a ‘shotgun wedding and divorce.’ This meant that this promise an Arab-Israeli rapprochement was nothing more than a disillusioning house of cards that failed to produce lasting results of achieving peaceful relations with Arab countries without the inconvenience of doing something for the Palestinians. Again, it is the silences that are the most revealing aspect of Friedman’s lament. There is not a word in the column that the peak moment of bonding between Israelis and Lebanese Christians came during the Lebanon War of 1982, reaching its dramatic climax when Israel’s IDF collaborated with the Maronite militias in overseeing the civilian massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. To lament the breakdown of this ill-fated marriage of convenience, without noting one of the starkest mass atrocities of the past half century in the region, is a typical embodiment of Friedman’s hypocritical morality and opportunistic geopolitics. Friedman does not stop there. He adds a gratuitous insult directed at Hezbollah coupled with a passing slur directed at Iran because it supports Hezbollah, and thus has the temerity to challenge Israeli/Saudi/U.S. phantasies.
Bad as is this foray into the tragic realities of Lebanese politics, worse is to come. Friedman regards the real payoff of the Trump normalization process is situated in the future. He conjectures that a parallel agreement with Saudi Arabia would be the crown jewel of the process, opining that such “..normalization would be huge for both Israel-Arab and Jewish-Muslim relations.” At the same time, Friedman reluctantly recognizes that the murder of Kamal Khashoggi is seen by some as an awkward impediment to reach this proclaimed goal. Here is how Friedman frames the grisly event: “The CIA-reported decision to have Saudi democracy advocate Jamal Khashoggi, who a long-time U.S. resident, killed and dismembered was utterly demented—an incomprehensible response to a peaceful critic who no threat to the kingdom.”
The language, as always with Friedman is revealing in ways that should make this journalist of post-colonial imperialism squirm. Why the word ‘demented,’ meaning bizarre action without rational justification, when the act in question was a wonton criminal abuse of power, accentuated by the misuse of diplomatic facilities to carry out an act of aggravated state terror—the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Further that the killing Khashoggi was ‘incomprehensible’ because it served no state purpose since there was ‘no threat to the kingdom.’ Cynical and hypocritical to the core: Hezbollah is demeaned for no reason, while a much deserved condemnation of MBS is sidestepped by Friedman’s rather implausible claim of being mystified by what he portrays as the senseless murder of Khashoggi a harmless critic of Mohamed bin Salmon’s Saudi imperium. Having taken note of the bloody deed, Friedman makes his priorities unmistakable by giving a green light to the nefarious business of geopolitics. Friedman always ready to provide unsolicited advice, without pausing for a breath of fresh air, observe that while “[t]he Biden team is still sorting out how it will relate to MBS” it remains right “to insist that that America will continue to deal with Saudi Arabia in general as an ally.”
Without the slightest show of moral inhibition, Friedman cuts to the chase, affirming the triangular relations between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States as a constructive partnership in the region. He celebratory mood is expressed as follows: “If the Abraham Accords do thrive and broaden to include normalization between Israeli and Saudi Arabia, we are talking about one on the most significant realignments in modern Middle Eastern history, which for many decades was largely shaped by Great Power interventions and Arab-Israeli dynamics. Not anymore.” Again, this realignment is presupposed to be a constructive development without any indications of qualifications either by reference to the dangers of inclining the region even more toward a military confrontation with Iran or by acting as if the daily Palestinian ordeal was not worth addressing in the course of assessing such a diplomatic misadventure.
Friedman does go on to contend implausibly that in such an altered diplomatic environment, Israel might become more amenable to a two-state solution without even pausing to point out that even under pressure, Israel never wanted to co-exist with a viable Palestinian state, and now with the rightward drift of its internal politics and its guaranty of continued unconditional support in Washington, it no longer needs to pretend. The accelerating growth of Israeli settlements in defiance of the UN, the deferred pledges of substantial annexation of the West Bank, and the evident resolve by Israel to uphold its claim to govern Jerusalem as a unified whole, capital for Israel alone, makes any resurrection of two-state diplomacy an even crueler bad joke than Oslo told to the world while Palestinian aspirations are drenched in blood and the Palestinian people faced with an indefinite prospect of suffering under an apartheid Israeli regime.
The fact that the Biden presidency wasted no time resurrecting the two-state corpse is the clearest possible demonstration of the moral and political bankruptcy of U.S. policy with respect to the Palestinian struggle to achieve basic rights after many decades of denial. Unlike the Trump years, Friedman can exult in the reality that he is no longer out of step with those who preside over policymaking in the White House when it comes to the Middle East. And now post-Trump I am quite sure Friedman would not urge the Biden/Blinken to take back any of the unlawful gifts bestowed on Israel during the four Trump/Kushner years, including the Syrian Golan Height, the UN-defying move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the ‘legalization’ of the settlements along with de facto annexation of significant territory in occupied Palestine.