New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman lent his support to the controversial actions taken by the departing administration of President Barack Obama concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Dec. 29, 2016, “Bibi Makes Trump His Chump”). Friedman praises the last minute maneuvers by the President and Secretary of State John F. Kerry and castigates Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for lacking the political courage to defy his rightwing base. The facts and historical account offered by Friedman are worth examining.
1) Friedman chides Netanyahu for his unwillingness to “confront the Jewish settlers, who relentlessly push Israel deeper and deeper into the West Bank.”
So what are the facts about the territory and population of Jewish settlements in the West Bank?
The Jewish population of Judea and Samaria has increased from 275,000 at the end of 2008 to 377,000 at the end of 2015 according to figures published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Over a seven-year period most of the population gain reflects the natural growth rate of the population. The total territory that has been built upon by Jewish settlers amounts to between two and three percent of the total West Bank land area (depending upon the source) and has changed little during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s eight year tenure.
While it is true that the built-up territory does not comprise the total land area that Israel controls or would control in any agreement, nevertheless, there is no evidence that Jewish settlers are “relentlessly” expanding the territory under their control, as Friedman contends.
2) Friedman accuses Netanyahu of always siding with the settlers. He does not mention the ten-month settlement freeze imposed by Netanyahu in 2010 at the request of President Obama in order to coax Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table. It didn’t work; Abbas stalled until the 10th month when time had run out.
3) Friedman criticizes Netanyahu for refusing to “show any imagination or desire to build workable alternatives… such as radical political and economic autonomy for the Palestinians in the majority of the West Bank, free of settlements, while Israel still controls the borders and the settlements close to it.”
Friedman’s vagueness leaves it unclear what he thinks Israel can do differently that it hasn’t done already. The Palestinian Authority governs the daily lives of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, while Israel controls the borders and polices the settlements. Friedman continues his critique contending that “Bibi never lays down a credible peace plan that truly puts the ball in the Palestinians’ court.” Friedman fails to consider the peace plans offered by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former President Bill Clinton in 2000 and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. Both plans would have ceded to the Palestinians nearly the entire West Bank along with agreed upon land swaps. The plans were met with rejection. In the case of the former plan in 2000, the response was a wave of devastating suicide bombings that forced Israel to take more intrusive measures in the West Bank and build a separation barrier. In light of that history, it is fair to ask whether it is Bibi or Friedman who evidences a lack of imagination by suggesting Israel repeat what it already has done without success.
4) Friedman lashes out by accusing Netanyahu of calling Obama an “enemy” when Obama “exposes” the Prime Minister’s lack of initiative on pursuing peace.
An Internet search has turned up no evidence that Prime Minister Netanyahu ever called President Obama an enemy. He has criticized the outgoing President for his recent actions. A responsible columnist should not engage in irresponsible exaggerations or inflammatory rhetoric.
5) Friedman, however, does not hesitate to accuse American Jews who sympathize with Netanyahu and the majority of Israelis of exerting a nefarious control over American foreign policy. It takes more than a touch of hubris to insist that he knows better than the Israeli electorate what is good for the Jewish state. The Israelis have to live with the decisions made about their security and future. Friedman doesn’t.
6) Friedman is especially incensed over President-Elect Donald Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, whom the Times columnist derides as a “rightwing extremist, and I mean extreme.” He then misrepresents what David Friedman said, stating “David Friedman has compared Jews who favor a two-state solution to Jews who collaborated with the Nazis.”
That is not what David Friedman said. In David Friedman’s own words (Israel National News, June 5, 2016):
Finally, are J Street supporters really as bad as kapos? The answer, actually, is no. They are far worse than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas – it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.
David Friedman compared J Street supporters to kapos, not all Jews who favor a two-state solution, a much broader category. The Times’ Friedman then claims “I’ve never heard such a vile slur fr
om one Jew to another.” Really? What about some far-left, anti-Zionist Jews who have on occasion equated rightwing Israelis to Nazis? Were the comments by Israeli professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, British MP Gerald Kaufman, UN Rapporteurs Richard Falk and Jean Ziegler and other denizens of the far-left not as vile or more so?
7) Friedman repeats the major theme of Secretary Kerry’s speech on Dec. 28, 2016 that Israel cannot preserve its Jewish character and remain democratic if it continues to exert control over the West Bank. He underscores his concern by contending that combined Israeli Arab and West Bank Palestinian Arab population would “constitute a significant minority with a higher birthrate than that of Israeli Jews.” In a Times column on October 19, 1987, Friedman warned that in 12 years, “Israel and the occupied territories will be, in demographic terms, a binational state.” He went on to quote a leading Israeli demographer, Arnon Soffer, saying that Israel was becoming “a bi-national, not a Jewish state – no question about it.” The prediction proved wrong. But the demographic swamping of Israel’s Jewish population by out of control Arab reproduction has remained a lynchpin of Friedman’s argument for the compelling need for Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.
The columnist’s demographic claims are obsolete. He could not have predicted the wave of Soviet Jewish immigration. But he also seems unaware of the substantial shift in fertility between the two populations that has occurred over the last 20 years. According to the most recent data by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Israeli Jewish fertility is now at 3.13 children per women, equal to that of Israeli Arabs. Palestinian fertility in the West Bank still exceeds that figure according to Palestinian accounting, but has declined precipitously over the years. If current trends continue, Jewish fertility, bolstered by immigration, will shift the demographic balance further in favor of Jews in Israel.
Demographics aside, the incorporation of a large hostile Arab population into Israel’s electorate would be destabilizing and for that reason most Israelis would not support such an arrangement. Nevertheless, Friedman should update his facts and not base his argument on outdated claims that Arab fertility will overwhelm Israel’s Jewish majority.