Tom Friedman, like his paper, has had an ambivalent relationship with Israel.
Before Friedman's time, the New York Times editorialized against the creation of Israel, then regularly urged Israel to risk its national well-being in trusting Arab intentions and avoiding self-defense measures. When, for example, Israel acted in 1981 to remove the Iraqi nuclear threat by surgically bombing the Osirak reactor, the Times blasted the nation for its "inexcusable and shortsighted aggression."
In the last decade, Times editorialists and Friedman have exhorted Israel to pursue the Oslo process, urging concessions to and accommodation with Arafat. This was so throughout the 1990s, despite pervasive hate-mongering in Palestinian schools, mosques, and media (which the Times has consistently neglected to report); intensifying violence against Israeli civilians; and wanton Palestinian violation of both the letter and spirit of the Oslo Accords.
Friedman, however, took some notice of the true obstacles to peace as the political and human wreckage has mounted.
In a half-turnabout, he now faults the Arab side for its self-defeating choices, while continuing in mindless even-handedness to vilify Israel for not eliminating settlements, which he deems equally the root of the present disaster. The fact that Israel, under Ehud Barak, offered sweeping concessions on settlements at Camp David and Taba, only to have the proposals kicked aside by the Palestinians, scarcely softens Friedman's indictments. Now comes the Saudi proposal, with Friedman and the Times at center stage.
Friedman relates in a February 17 column that while dining with Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud recently, he urged the Arab leader to recognize Israel in return for "total withdrawal by Israel to the June 4, 1967 lines." Friedman advised "full diplomatic relations, normalized trade and security guarantees. Full withdrawal, in accord with UN Resolution 242, for full peace between Israel and the entire Arab world." To Friedman's delight, Abdullah declared he had precisely such a proposal stashed in his "drawer" in the form of a "speech."
The minor matter of Friedman's falsely characterizing UN Resolution 242, which does not, in fact, call for Israel's "full withdrawal" to the June 4, 1967, lines, in no way inhibited the Times' full-tilt campaign to promote its plan. (The Times has a chronic problem with 242, repeatedly having to correct inaccurate accounts of the text and failing to make clear that the resolution was deliberately left vague by its authors to provide for negotiated border adjustments and to avoid forcing Israel back to the indefensible pre-1967 armistice lines.)
Additionally, Friedman's eagerness to imagine normalized relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors begs the question of what international relations are like in the Mideast. What is normal? Egypt fought border wars with Libya and a war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Iraq attacked Iran, invaded Kuwait, and threatened Saudi Arabia. Syria has invaded Jordan and presently occupies Lebanon.
Still, the paper promptly began to editorialize and report extensively and enthusiastically on the Friedman-Abdullah plan. A February 21 editorial effused that talk of "peace is again in the air" and no discussions were "more serious" than those with Abdullah, who indicated "his country is finally ready to lead the Arab world to normal relations with Israel." The Times was especially elated that Abdullah would supposedly permit Jews sovereignty at the Western Wall and in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and seemed to assume Israelis too would be supremely grateful for such permission from the potentates of Arabia.
On February 28, the editors urged Prime Minister Sharon to understand that Israel would have no freedom from violence without "a clear vision of eventual peace" along the lines the Saudis were indicating. The Times advised Sharon to evacuate settlements.
On March 3, a front-page story by Serge Schmemann nearly 5,000 words long traced the Friedman-Abdullah plan's evolution into a subject of American and Middle East policy focus, noting incidentally that the core issue of Arab normalization of relations with Israel had been omitted in a speech by the Saudi ambassador that referred to Abdullah's plan.
In his March 10 column Friedman ignored the apparent Saudi retreat from recognition, but reiterated his equal blame of Hamas - which has murdered hundreds of Israelis, including "settlers" - and the settlers themselves.
Yet what Friedman and the Times have been purveying entails a much broader distortion of basic truths.
The Palestinian reaction to Barak's offer at Camp David and Taba merely confirmed the messages of their schools, mosques, and media. By rejecting Israeli territorial concessions involving virtually all the West Bank and Gaza, with compensation for the rest, and by insisting on a Palestinian right of return, the Palestinians have indicated that their goal is not to settle boundaries with Israel but to replace it.
To ignore that message, to pretend that peace is near if only Israel adjusts its borders in return for Arab "guarantees," is entirely consistent with the newspaper's record of editorial disregard for Mideastern facts and Israeli security.
Appeared in the Jerusalem Post on this date