Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Friedman vs. Israel

David Gerstman
Thomas Friedman used the occasion of President Obama's re-election to return to his favorite topic: bashing Israel, in his Sunday column My President is busy. Aside from demonstrating his ignorance about suing Google, Friedman makes a couple of mistakes. 

You should be so lucky that the president feels he has the time, energy and political capital to spend wrestling with Bibi to forge a peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I don’t see it anytime soon. Obama has his marching orders from the American people: Focus on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not on Bethlehem, Palestine, and focus on getting us out of quagmires (Afghanistan) not into them (Syria). No, my Israeli friends, it’s much worse than you think: You’re home alone.
Is this good for Israel? No. It is unhealthy. The combination of America’s internal focus, the post-Arab awakening turmoil and the exhaustion of Palestinians means Israel can stay in the West Bank indefinitely at a very low short-term cost but at a very high long-term cost of losing its identity as a Jewish democracy. If Israelis want to escape that fate, it is very important that they understand that we’re not your grandfather’s America anymore.
Since he has nothing substantive to criticize Israel for, he returns to the trope about the demographic threat. But the occupation has, for the most part, been over since late 1995. The only remaining need is to establish the boundaries of a Palestinian state. However now Fatah, due to Abbas's mismanagement, is too weak to make a deal and Hamas cannot be trusted to make one, what is Israel to do? Obama could insist on a deal, but it would never work. It is good not "unhealthy" that he ignore the Palestinian issue right now.
To begin with, the rising political force in America is not the one with which Bibi has aligned Israel. As the Israeli columnist Ari Shavit noted in the newspaper Haaretz last week: “In the past, both the Zionist movement and the Jewish state were careful to be identified with the progressive forces in the world. ... But in recent decades more and more Israelis took to leaning on the reactionary forces in American society. It was convenient to lean on them. The evangelists didn’t ask difficult questions about the settlements, the Tea Party people didn’t say a word about excluding women and minorities or about Jewish settlers’ attacks and acts of vandalism against Palestinians and peace activists. The Republican Party’s white, religious, conservative wing was not agitated when the Israeli Supreme Court was attacked and the rule of law in Israel was trampled.” Israel, Shavit added, assumed that “under the patronage of a radical, rightist America we can conduct a radical, rightist policy without paying the price.” No more. Netanyahu can still get a standing ovation from the Israel lobby, but not at U.C.L.A.
Seth Mandel wrote an excellent rejoinder to the Shavit argument that Friedman embraces. Frankly, I don't know if Shimon Peres would have been warmly received at UCLA during the 1990's. The problem isn't Israeli policy or politics, but the vicious hatred of Israel perpetuated in certain precincts during the past several decades. Friedman, with his bashing of Israel provides cover for this ugliness. (If his reference here to the "Israel lobby" is a sly reference to Congress, then he is part of the vast anti-Israel crowd.) 
The other day, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority declared: “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital. This is Palestine. I am a refugee. I live in Ramallah. The West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. Everything else is Israel.”
This was a big signal, but Bibi scorned it. The Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote an open letter to Netanyahu in Haaretz, taking him to task: “This is a bit embarrassing, but I will remind you, Mr. Netanyahu, that you were elected to lead Israel precisely in order to discern these rare hints of opportunity, in order to transform them into a possible lever to extricate your country from the impasse in which it has been stuck for decades.”
The most charitable explanation for Abbas's statement was that it was a public relations gambit to change Israeli  public opinion. However, as Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out, Abbas's own campaign to define the right of return as "sacred" meant that there's little support among the Palestinian public for any sort of compromise. There is plenty of blame to assign to the Palestinians for the lack of a final agreement; one only criticizes Israel exclusively if one is willfully ignorant.

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