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Iron Dope

Tom Friedman isn’t the New York Times’s worst columnist, but he may be the most fatuous, as his latest column illustrates. He starts by noting that he recently attended a synagogue in southern Turkey, for which I applaud him. He continues:

How could it be that I could go to synagogue in Turkey on Saturday while on Friday, just across the Orontes River in Syria, I had visited with Sunni Free Syrian Army rebels embroiled in a civil war in which Syrian Alawites and Sunnis are killing each other on the basis of their ID cards, Kurds are creating their own enclave, Christians are hiding and the Jews are long gone?

What is this telling us?

Hmm. I can think of several possible answers to that question, none of them flattering to Islam. But that, of course, isn’t where Friedman is heading:

For me, it raises the question of whether there are just three governing options in the Middle East today: Iron Empires, Iron Fists or Iron Domes?

This is a classic Friedman rhetorical device, to which the only appropriate response is, Huh?

It turns out that “Iron Empires” means the Ottomans, who, as Friedman writes, “had a live-and-let-live mentality toward their subjects.” Unless, of course, they were Armenians.

“Iron Fists” refers to a motley assortment of Arab dictators who took power after World War II, including Saddam Hussein and the Assad family in Syria. Of course, some fists were more iron than others. The Assads were bad, but not so bad that they didn’t merit a fawning tribute in Vogue magazine. And Mubarak had his faults, but he didn’t feed any enemies into chipping machines, as far as I know. Friedman is never one to overlook the most banal observations:

So what you are seeing today in the Arab awakening countries — Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen — is what happens when there is no Iron Empire and the people rise up against the iron-fisted dictators. You are seeing ongoing contests for power — until and unless someone can forge a social contract for how communities can share power.

Hey, that’s how you make the big bucks as a newspaper columnist. But now Friedman moves on to the real point of his column–the Iron Dome:

Israelis have responded to the collapse of Arab iron fists around them — including the rise of militias with missiles in Lebanon [Ed.: Just wondering, who was the Iron Fist in Lebanon?] and Gaza — with a third model. It is the wall Israel built around itself to seal off the West Bank coupled with its Iron Dome antimissile system. The two have been phenomenally successful — but at a price.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider that phenomenal success. Friedman hasn’t just shifted gears here, he has pulled a head-snapping 180. Israel has been since its inception a victim of the fanaticism and instability that have racked the Arab world. It has been forced to defend itself against adversaries determined to kill its Jewish population and erase the nation itself from the map. To its great credit, Israel has done so largely through defensive, non-violent means, of which the fence, which has successfully kept out mass murderers, and the Iron Dome system, which has proved capable of intercepting rockets aimed at Israeli civilians, are excellent examples. So one wonders how, exactly, Friedman connects Israel with Iron Empires and Iron Fists.

The wall plus the dome are enabling Israel’s leaders to abdicate their responsibility for thinking creatively about a resolution of its own majority-minority problem with the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Really? I would have said that the fence itself is a creative solution to the majority-minority problem in the West Bank, in that it prevents the majority Arabs from sneaking into Israel proper to commit murder. And Iron Dome creatively protects Israel against rocket attacks from Gaza. Is Friedman seriously suggesting that terrorist attacks from Gaza were a good thing because they forced Israel to “think creatively” about the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem? Common sense is not Friedman’s strong point:

I am stunned at what I see here politically. On the right, in the Likud Party, the old leadership that was at least connected with the world, spoke English and respected Israel’s Supreme Court…

Let’s pause here. Just asking: is there any other context in which Friedman or any other NY Times columnist would cite the ability to speak English as a criterion of civilization? I doubt it.

…is being swept aside in the latest primary by a rising group of far-right settler-activists who are convinced — thanks, in part, to the wall and dome — that Palestinians are no threat anymore and that no one can roll back the 350,000 Jews living in the West Bank.

But the Jews on the West Bank generally live outside the fence, not within it. And if the fence plus Iron Dome mean that “Palestinians are no threat anymore”–which they surely do not–it is only because they allow Israel to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism. Does Friedman really mean to suggest that Israel has some perverse duty to expose itself to terrorist attack?

The far-right group running Israel today is so arrogant, and so indifferent to U.S. concerns, that it announced plans to build a huge block of settlements in the heart of the West Bank — in retaliation for the U.N. vote giving Palestinians observer status — even though the U.S. did everything possible to block that vote and the settlements would sever any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state.

I am not sure in what sense Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can be considered “far right.” “Far right,” as we know, is a highly flexible phrase when employed by liberals at the Times. Adolf Hitler, Sarah Palin, Netanyahu–who can tell the difference?

Still, it is refreshing to see that just as he considers it a sign of virtue to speak English, Friedman thinks it important that foreign governments not be “indifferent to U.S. concerns.” To be indifferent to our concerns, Friedman says, is “arrogant.” This, too, is a characterization that I doubt we will ever see applied to any country but Israel. In Friedman’s view, Israel owed it to the U.S. not to approve the construction of housing near East Jerusalem, because such construction will “sever any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state.” I don’t believe that claim is true, but the hypothetical Palestinian state will not be contiguous in any event, since Gaza does not border the West Bank. And why does Israel have a duty to assure that the hypothetical state be contiguous? Its citizens have at least as good a claim to live on the West Bank as anyone else.

Friedman ends with a complaint that Israel’s defensive measures have been so successful that liberal politicians have given up on opposing them. He does not draw the obvious conclusion from this fact:

Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, the dome and wall have so insulated the Israeli left and center from the effects of the Israeli occupation that their main candidates for the Jan. 22 elections — including those from Yitzhak Rabin’s old Labor Party — are not even offering peace ideas but simply conceding the right’s dominance on that issue and focusing on bringing down housing prices and school class sizes. One settler leader told me the biggest problem in the West Bank today is “traffic jams.”

Most of us consider that a very good thing, but Friedman evidently yearns for the days when the Arabs could pressure Israeli governments by mounting successful terrorist attacks. This is what passes for erudite commentary in the benighted pages of the New York Times.

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