Friday, October 22, 2010

Thomas Friedman's No-Win Approach to Israel-Palestine

It's not just the Israelis and Palestinians who can't win by listening to Thomas Friedman, the response to his pontifications seems to be that advocates on both sides - those who cheer and jeer from the sidelines - are scornful. Before 9/11, Friedman was frequently criticized by anti-peace zealots because he was pretty consistent in suggesting that both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict played a role in its perpetuation. It was never enough that his sympathies were unambiguously with Israel, or that his principal motive in arguing for the two state solution that "everybody knows" is the inevitable outcome of the conflict was that it would be in Israel's best interest. If I recall correctly, he even made the villains list on the reproachable "Masada 2000" website.

Following 9/11 Friedman appeared happy to take a break from advocating for a negotiated end to the conflict, perhaps as a part of an embrace of "suck on this", "impose democracy at gunpoint" approach to Middle Eastern politics. But after a decade of seeing how well that has turned out, Friedman has increasingly returned his focus to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Within that context, Friedman frequently makes observations that are astonishingly naive, divorced from reality. It is difficult to imagine how somebody with even a passing knowledge of the region and conflict would make a statement like,
The trust deficit is exacerbated by the fact that after Israel quit the Gaza Strip in 2005, Palestinians, instead of building Singapore there, built Somalia and focused not on how to make microchips, but on how to make rockets to hit Israel.
The statement is foolish on a number of levels. First, Israel did not "quit" Gaza, but continued to impose a full blockade on its borders and ports, control its airspace, control travel in and out, block trade, and limit its access to its own tax revenues, as well as much of its power and already-inadequate water supply. Beyond that, even in the best of times it would be absurdly difficult to turn one of the most densely populated, poor, uneducated territories in the world into a "Singapore". It's not even remotely possible in a territory that has had its infrastructure repeatedly bombed into oblivion and is blocked from even obtaining the materials necessary to effect repairs, even if we pretend that outside investors would pour billions into a territory that could again be militarily razed at any time. There's the practical reality that even if it were possible to create a Singapore out of abject poverty in the space of a few years, the world seems to have all of the Singapores it needs - for example, why isn't New Dehli a "Singapore"? Why isn't Detroit? Why isn't Tel Aviv? (And how's Dubai doing these days?) I suspect, though, that in making this type of statement Friedman has no intention of addressing the realities, but simply wants to send his readers the message that "Any misery suffered by the Palestinians is their own fault." (But it earns him no love from those who most strongly endorse that sentiment.)

In his most recent effort to present a (not-so-balanced) "balanced take", Friedman opens by invoking one of my pet peeves - treating Israel as a child. His attitude is far from new - he's long argued the U.S. must intervene and do... something to make the parties reach a peace deal. But he's much more explicit this time around:
And here’s another stubborn fact: Israel today really is behaving like a spoiled child.
Needless to say, that comment has raised the hackles of any number of pro-Israel partisans. But if you believe as I do, that Israel is not a child and is fully capable of taking ownership of its own interests and future, it moves the conflict away from that reality and back into Friedman's narrative of "only the United States can fix this". Worse, at a time when the Obama Administration is working very hard to convince the Palestinians that it is approaching peace negotiations in good faith, Friedman is implicitly depicting the U.S. as Israel's doting parent, unable to ever say "no". Even if you believe that to be true, there are less inflammatory ways to raise the question of partisanship. Moreover, as appears to be the case with Thomas Friedman, if you want the United States to continue to favor Israel it's a poor way to characterize the relationship.
First — I know this is a crazy, radical idea — when America asks Israel to do something that in no way touches on its vital security but would actually enhance it, there is only one right answer: “Yes.” It is a measure of how spoiled Israel has become that after billions and billions of dollars in U.S. aid and 300,000 settlers already ensconced in the West Bank, Israel feels no compunction about spurning an American request for a longer settlement freeze — the only purpose of which is to help the United States help Israel reach a secure peace with the Palestinians.
Sure, a parent who supported a child generously through high school, paid his tuition, room and board for college, bought him a car, and gives him a generous allowance should be able to say, "You're a grown-up now, please move out of our basement." But if that's how Friedman perceives the existing dynamic, he should already know that telling a "spoiled child" in that position how much he "owes" his parents will do nothing to resolve the situation. Perhaps Friedman should have found a bit of space in his column to lecture Congress for its refusal to even consider limiting "Junior's" allowance.

But again, I think Friedman is missing the boat. The periodic peace negotiations that occur between the sides suggest that a peace deal could be reached, and that its foundation could be reached quickly. It appears that Netanyahu agreed to a settlement freeze with the goal not of working toward peace, but of getting to engage in unrestricted expansion in every single Israeli settlement. You don't have to spend much time struggling over the details of Netanyahu's biography to recognize that he has no appreciable interest in achieving a peace deal. The biggest difference between the leaders who have been willing to work for peace and those who have not has been their party affiliation.

Friedman offers an unhelpful comment about Mahmoud Abbas, a man generally credited with making incredible strides toward establishing a peace-oriented, functional government for the West Bank,
Second, I have no idea whether the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, has the will and the guts to make peace with Israel.
Dare I ask, who cares what Friedman thinks? If Abbas signs onto a peace deal and is unable to deliver, the region will deal with that unfortunate outcome. But really, how many international conflicts are resolved due to the deep, abiding trust between the leaders who broker the peace deal?

Friedman then turns to something pretty close to fiction:
In fact, when you go back and look at what Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s predecessor, offered Abbas — a real two-state compromise, including a deal on Jerusalem — and you think that Abbas spurned that offer, and you think that Netanyahu already gave Abbas a 10-month settlement freeze and Abbas only entered serious talks in the ninth month, you have to wonder how committed he is.
As Friedman should know, the settlement freeze offered by Netanyahu was pretty much in name only, as construction projects that had already been approved were permitted to continue, and there was a mad rush to approve new projects before the "freeze" took effect. Second, the largest impediment to the commencement of negotiations was Netanyahu's refusal to agree to some of the terms previously offered by Olmert. It doesn't seem particularly bizarre to me that a Palestinian leader would opt not to restart talks from scratch each time negotiations end, and it seems to me to be a reasonable test of Netanyahu's sincerity to ask that he agree to terms that are essential to any negotiated outcome.

But stepping back a bit further, it probably came as a surprise to Friedman's readers that Olmert offered Abbas a wonderful deal, guaranteed to pass in the Knesset, and couldn't even get a return phone call. Particularly if you read Ha'aretz, in which you'll find a different story. The initial offer was rejected - no ambiguity there. Further negotiations occurred and showed promise, with Abbas stating, "I negotiated with [Olmert] and felt we could have reached an agreement", but "the start of Israel's offensive in Gaza effectively ended negotiations".

It may be true that Abbas didn't pick up the phone, call Olmert and say, "I recognize that you're engaging in war on Gaza, that your government is likely to fall due to corruption scandals, and there's no way under these circumstances you can get a peace deal through the Knesset, but do you want to try to reach a final agreement anyway?" By the same token, Olmert didn't phone Abbas and ask, "You haven't talked to me about the peace deal since I started military actions against Gaza, what's up with that?" To some degree both men benefited from failing to pick up the phone - they can put onus for the failure of talks on the other, on circumstances, or both. But it's not unreasonable to believe that the unspoken assumptions that led both sides to end negotiations would have prevented the negotiations from amounting to anything.

But this brings us back to a fundamental requirement for effective negotiations: A final deal, or something approaching a final deal, on settlements and borders. I believe that is what President Obama wants to achieve in the next round of talks, and it's in no way unreasonable to believe that an agreement could be reached. Once reached, the issue of a settlement freeze would become moot - Israel would have agreed to phase out settlements on the Palestinian side of the agreed border, but would be free to expand those settlements that both sides agreed would remain part of the Israeli state.

Seriously, although official maps aren't available, we have a history of unofficial maps we can look at - and those maps have been around for a long time without serious challenge. We have the offer made by Ehud Barak toward the end of the Clinton Administration, and the much better offer he reportedly made during subsequent negotiations at Taba, aborted due to Ariel Sharon's election to office. Compare the Taba map to the offer reportedly made by Olmert a couple of years ago. The differences are pretty modest. The tendril-like intrusions of Israeli territory into the West Bank, and the odd pockets to be transferred to Gaza as part of a land swap, cast a significant shadow over the claim that Olmert had serious security concerns; but then the notion of a Palestinian state as an existential threat to Israel is absurd on its face.

If we are to assume that the weak Ehud Olmert could have convinced the Knesset to approve his plan, why can't we similarly assume that Binyamin Netanyahu could agree to a similar plan and obtain Knesset approval? If he cannot, there's not much point to engaging in peace talks until there's a change of government. If he can, his refusal to agree to a short-term settlement freeze would appear to be out of fear of that outcome. It must have occurred to Thomas Friedman that Ariel Sharon could have picked up negotiations where they ended in Taba. It must have occurred to him that, with a minimum of intrusion from Washington, Olmert was doing pretty well negotiating a solution and, like Sharon, Netanyahu could easily have resumed negotiations after taking office. But he has yet to ask, "Why didn't they resume peace talks?" Doesn't he believe that the answer to that question is important, and might shed some light on the perpetuation of this conflict?

Update: Roger Cohen shares some observations about the peace process that largely ring true. He's cynical about its chances but, given that Netanyahu won't agree to a settlement freeze despite overwhelming concessions from the U.S., perhaps he's right to be cynical. I think he overstates the case against success, and the amount of courage involved in agreeing to a peace deal - that is, if we're going to define "courage" as something more than "running a chance of losing the next election". I don't think Abbas would be in danger if the essence of the Olmert proposal were preserved, and I suspect that Netanyahu's security detail is significantly more diligent and much more attuned to domestic dangers than that of Yitzhak Rabin.


  1. Good point. The last three serious or semi-serious peace negotiations occurred under Labor or Kadima. The walk-away and stonewalling has occurred under Likud. That's been the case since the Rabin assassination. Labor's hands aren't exactly clean, as they often eagerly joined Likud coalitions, but I guess that's the nature of democracy. It's not even slightly unusual for a politician to cling to power and office, even if it means sacrificing everything they're supposed to stand for.

  2. A cynic might argue that the leading reason why Likud avoids peace talks, or why somebody like Netanyahu attempts to impose preconditions to talks that he expects the Palestinians to reject while refusing to accept any preconditions for his own side, is that he sees the handwriting on the wall. What's the future of Likud if a peace deal works?


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