Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Supporting Democracy Everywhere (Else) in the Middle East

Back in the 1980's, before he developed his "suck on this" attitude toward the Muslim world (an attitude I hope he now recognizes as misguided), I recall conversations in which Thomas Friedman's tepid endorsements of Palestinian rights caused people on the opposite side of the debate to speak his name with contempt, even to the point of labeling him a self-hating Jew. That reaction seemed, and seems, pretty much insane. Friedman is an ardent and consistent supporter of Israel, and his occasional criticism is about strengthening that state, not weakening it. A more fair criticism would be that, when confronted by those who will never agree to peace, he offers what amounts to a, "Just kidding" rather than standing behind his prior sentiments.

Friedman's most recent two columns remind me of why his writings on the Middle East are so frustrating. When Friedman writes,
I am awed by the bravery of the Syrian and Egyptian youths trying to throw off the tyranny of the Assad family and the Egyptian military. The fact that they go into the streets — knowing they face security forces who will not hesitate to gun them down — speaks of the deep longing of young Arabs to be free of the regimes that have so long choked their voices and prevented them from realizing their full potential.
is it not fair to note that he never voiced similar "awe" at the bravery of Palestinian teenagers who took to the streets to protest occupation, even at the risk of being injured or killed? It's not difficult to find even strong Israeli partisans who question the tactics of Israel during the first Intifada, and question whether the harsh treatment of teenagers during that period caused serious blowback, contributing to increased militancy and the much more violent tactics of the second Intifada. Like most in the media, Friedman can't seem to find space in his columns to cover non-violent protest in the occupied territories, unless it's against Palestinian authorities.

My position has long been that the best thing for the Palestinian people and the region would have been for Israel to change its tactics, supporting the development of real democracy during the period when the Palestinians had secular, western-focused leaders. That is, after all, what Israel did with great success within its borders - about 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab. There is no reason to believe that such an effort would not have succeeded in the occupied territories and, given Friedman's long-stated desire for the creation of a model democracy within the Middle East, it would seem to have been a natural argument for him to make. Yet even as he presently writes,
Outsiders often underestimate just how much these Arab youths are determined to limit the powers of their militaries as a necessary step for achieving true democracy. What you see in Egypt today are young people from across the political spectrum and classes who are willing to join forces, break ranks with their own parties and return to Tahrir Square to press for real freedom. This is a generational rupture. It is the old versus the young. It is the insiders (the adults) versus the outsiders (the youth). It is the privileged old guard versus the disadvantaged young guard.
He can't bring himself to include Palestinians youth in his editorial or to speak of (or distinguish) what they want. His only point of consistency is his resort to the need of a "magic man" to solve the problems of any given group, nation, or industry:
Can they each make it without one? Only if they develop their own Nelson Mandelas — unique civic leaders or coalitions who can honor the past, and contain its volcanic urges, but not let it bury the future.
Mandela spent a quarter-century in prison for refusing to renounce violent resistance to the Apartheid regime. Had he been released from prison before Apartheid was on the wane, he likely would have continued to support violent resistance as opposed to engaging in the political process associated with the end of Apartheid and the enfranchisement of all South Africans. But Friedman has never been one to bog himself down with mundane details - as I've previously pointed out, the Mandela he is talking about is the one played by Morgan Friedman in Invictus. His Gandhi is likely the one played by Ben Kingsley.

In his latest column, Friedman hints at a commonality:
Israel’s fear of Islamists taking power all around it cannot be dismissed. But it is such a live possibility precisely because of the last 50 years of Arab dictatorship, in which only Islamists were allowed to organize in mosques while no independent, secular, democratic parties were allowed to develop in the political arena. This has given Muslim parties an early leg up. Arab dictators were convenient for Israel and the Islamists — but deadly for Arab development and education. Now that the lid has come off, the transition will be rocky. But, it was inevitable, and the new politics is just beginning: Islamists will now have to compete with legitimate secular parties.
Both Egypt and Israel made a similar mistake when they saw the growth of secular opposition to their tactics. Egypt fostered the fundamentalist groups that turned into the Muslim Brotherhood and Israel exiled the PLO while funding and supporting Hamas. In a sense these tactics worked - they did weaken secular movements and move the affected regions away from democracy. But by the time it was apparent that the fundamentalist movements were a far greater danger than their secular predecessors, it was too late to turn back the tide. Even in bringing back the PLO as an armed governing body, between Hamas's foothold, the PLO's corruption and the continued occupation, it was too late to turn back the clock on Hamas. As much as Friedman hopes for secular democracy to prevail, without mentioning elections he notes "The two weakest states on its border — Gaza and Lebanon — are controlled by Hamas and Hezbollah."

Friedman offers a great deal of seemingly willful self-deception and half-truth in relation to Benjamin Netanyahu, noting that Netanyahu favors stonewalling on the peace process in the wake of the "Arab Spring", but failing to note that Netanyahu has been a staunch opponent of the peace process throughout his political career, and is in fact far better known for his efforts to impede the peace process or roll back progress.

Friedman expresses, "I understand Israel not ceding territory in this uncertain period", but fails to acknowledge that there has never been a period in which Netanyahu has been willing to strike a deal that would return occupied lands to the Palestinian people, and as always he is presently expanding the size, scope and population of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Friedman also fails to clarify that when he speaks of "ceding territory" he in fact is speaking of annexing territory - the 1967 Green Line border is well documented. The present dispute is not over whether Israel would cede so much as an inch of its own land - nobody has argued that it would do so except in the context of a voluntary land swap - but is instead how much Palestinian land Israel will demand be ceded to it as part of any peace deal.

Friedman pretends he doesn't understand what is happening,
What I can’t understand is doing nothing. Israel has an Arab awakening in its own backyard in the person of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority. He’s been the most radical Arab leader of all. He is the first Palestinian leader to say: judge me on my performance in improving my peoples’ lives, not on my rhetoric. His focus has been on building institutions — including what Israelis admit is a security force that has helped to keep Israel peaceful — so Palestinians will be ready for a two-state solution. Instead of rewarding him, Israel has been withholding $100 million in Palestinian tax revenues that Fayyad needs — in punishment for the Palestinians pressing for a state at the U.N. — to pay the security forces that help to protect Israel. That is crazy.
Friedman knows very well what is going on. Netanyahu, and those in government who are further to his right, are hoping that Fayyad fails in his efforts and that they can use the failure as their next excuse for why it's not possible to work toward a final resolution that they do not want. They want peace, if we define that as a Palestinian population that is kept out of sight and out of mind, controlled such that it can inflict a minimum of damage outside of its confines. But a final agreement that formalizes a boarder and creates a Palestinian state? There has never been a whit of evidence that Netanyahu wants such an outcome, and surely Friedman is aware of the far more radical views of Avigdor Lieberman and his followers.
Israel’s best defense is to strengthen Fayyadism — including giving Palestinian security services more areas of responsibility to increase their legitimacy and make clear that they are not the permanent custodians of Israel’s occupation. This would not only help stabilize Israel’s own backyard — and prevent another uprising that would spread like wildfire to the Arab world without the old dictators to hold it back — but would lay the foundation for a two-state solution and for better relations with the Arab peoples.
I agree completely. But unlike Friedman, I won't be making excuses for Netanyahu when it doesn't happen.

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