Tom Friedman’s Settlement Obsession

For at least a decade, the eminent New York Times columnist, the maharishi of Mideast punditry, has relentlessly pushed the canard that settlements are a main obstacle to Mideast peace. Why?

Friedman Tom

Thomas L. Friedman has the best job in the world. The celebrated foreign affairs columnist of The New York Times has an unlimited budget and a global brief to go anywhere in the world and write on any policy subject his heart desires. He can boldly stake out any position, give vent to any feeling, relentlessly hammer home any point– without the constraints that impinge upon diplomats nor the cautions required of politicians. He is very good at it.

Too bad that when it come to the Arab-Israeli conflict Friedman continues to peddle a hackneyed, insidious symmetry between the warring parties; “evenhanded” Pablum that borders on professional misconduct, even imbecility. His compulsion to balance and compare every Arab misdeed to an Israeli misdeed is practically neurotic. Settlements are his primary bugaboo on our side.

To take a step back, I’ll grant that, overall, Tom Friedman’s Mideast commentary has been remarkably perceptive and notably ahead of the curve. He pointed to Arab societal and political failures and the increasingly-dangerous terrorist threat fed by these failures – long before September 11 and the emergence of the suicide bomber phenomena. His analysis and criticism of despotic and autocratic Arab elites, including the utterly corrupt leadership of the PA, has been ruthlessly piercing.

More than once, his op-ed page columns have driven policy, not just analyzed it, and set the foreign affairs agenda. The Saudi “peace initiative” this spring, for example, was brought to the world by Mr. Friedman. The item dominated world coverage of Mideast diplomacy for weeks. (I think that Friedman was played for a sucker by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, but that’s a different matter).

Getting back to Israel, there is a hobgoblin that haunts Tom Friedman’s writing and warps his commentary. He is obsessed with settlements in the “occupied territories”. They are the root of all evil.

Now, I know many people who (wrongly) would prefer, for legitimate (albeit misguided) political reasons that no or few Jews live in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Fine. However, the frequency with which Tom Friedman harps on settlement sins (in seven columns since January, by my count) and his vehemence suggest to me that more is at play.

According to maestro Friedman, Israeli settlements are “insane”; a “cancer for the Jewish people” that “threatens the entire Zionist enterprise”. Israel’s “colonial occupation” and “insane settlement land grab” could yet lead to a war of civilizations, Islam against the West, he warns.

Friedman’s fixation goes further. Anybody who “collaborates” (note the connotation!) in the building and strengthening of settlements — including “feckless American Jewish leaders”, fundamentalist Christians and neoconservatives, along with Sharon, Netanyahu and the “lunatic core of the Likud” – are “enemies of peace” and “enemies of America’s national interest”, no less.

Why this primitive, emotional hyperbole – not to mention, way-off-base analysis — so uncharacteristic of Friedman’s writing on other issues? What drives the eminent New York Times commentator, the maharishi of Mideast punditry, to incessantly, relentlessly — ad nauseam — push the canard that Jews have no rights in Yesha and that settlements are an obstacle to Mideast peace? This, even after Yasser Arafat blew his cover and launched a war to push us out from all of Israel!

The answer, my friends, lies in Tom Friedman’s fanatical need to show “balance”; to prove that he is not “too” pro-Israel; to make sure that his criticism of the Arabs doesn’t make him persona non grata in liberal circles.

Friedman regularly stokes his bona fides as a “fair-minded” blog by offsetting Arab barbarity and tyranny with the bad boys from Yesha. Thus, just last week he compared Arafat’s “Suicide War” with “the idea of the Jewish right that Israel could maintain a colonial occupation of the West Bank and continue to seize Palestinian land for more settlements”. Moderates realize that both are discredited, spent ventures, Friedman pontificates.

In other recent columns, Friedman has compared extremists Palestinians who want to destroy Israel, with the “lunatics of the Likud” who reject Palestinian statehood; Palestinians who want to continue the Intifada, with Sharon’s commitment to “insane settlements in Gaza”; and Arab dictators whose support of suicide bombings threatens Islam, to the “collaborators” whose support for a “colonial Israeli occupation” threatens Zionism.

And what must be done to save the future? Friedman’s solution is judiciously balanced, of course: Palestinians must “uproot Hamas and the Arab regimes must deal with their fundamentalists”, while Israel must “uproot most of the Jewish settlements”.

Excuse me if I find such equilibrium morally repugnant. To state the obvious: the Jewish drive to re-build Jewish life even in “disputed areas”, is a “building” movement rooted in love of homeland, which offers respect and human rights to local Arabs. The Arab/Islamic drive to roll Israelis into the sea or blast them into smithereens, is a “destroying” movement rooted in hate that offers Jews expulsion or annihilation.

It’s sad that this crucial moral distinction dissipates in Mr. Friedman’s forlorn search for self-regard.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on June 9, 2002

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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