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Tom Friedman’s Faux Middle East Expertise

This morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reportedly explained that – and this is a quote- “Netanyahu is [the] Mubarak of Israel.” At first this seems like a counterintuitive statement. The defining feature of Mubarak’s regime was its 30 years of autocratic rule, whereas Netanyahu has been elected by the Israeli electorate twice and enjoys the support of the Israeli public. Insofar as there’s any analogy to be asserted, it’s almost certain to confuse and confound – to conflate likes with unlikes – rather than to clarify.

But let’s keep in mind that Friedman is, as Barry Rubin pointed out while bemoaning the lack of adult supervision over Middle East policymaking, recognized as an expert on the region. He certainly packed the room at Aspen before dispensing this morning’s wisdom. He’s considered an expert despite how he (wrongly) declared in 2010 that Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad was consolidating and solidifying power, an impression Friedman picked up (predictably) from a few anecdotes he heard in the West Bank. He’s considered an expert despite how he simultaneously admits the Palestinians aren’t interested in peace but still insists we should tilt the diplomatic playing field away from Israel, our last stable Middle East ally. So maybe there’s a really striking and provocative insight buried inside this “elected Israeli officials are just like unelected Egyptian generals” comparison.

Fellow Contentions contributor Noah Pollak sarcastically suggested on Twitter that Friedman might have meant both Bibi and Mubarak are American allies who got mistreated by the current president. While there’s undoubtedly much to be said about this White House’s stubborn refusal to demonstrate any kind of foresight or competence in the Middle East, that probably isn’t what Friedman meant.

Immediately before his analogy, Friedman apparently declared “the Israelis and the Palestinians” are the people in the Middle East “most” in need of an Arab Spring, an implication of equivalence that would be strained even if Israel wasn’t already one of the world’s most robust democracies, which it is. And immediately after his analogy, Friedman reportedly suggested the U.S. “get out of the way” in September when the Palestinians abrogate two decades of U.S.-backed understandings and seek unilateral statehood in the United Nations. In addition to demonstrating to the world the U.S. can’t be trusted even on ironclad assurances, the recommended move would detonate what’s left of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

No worries though. The analogy will undoubtedly get unpacked in a future Friedman article. It will take its rightful place as a folksy microcosm for the broad sweep of Middle East history and politics, and everything will make sense. It’ll be just like the time Friedman’s casual conversation with “a Jordanian friend the other day,” which led into a convoluted joke about how some people don’t understand that cowboy and Indian movies always end the same way, unlocked for Friedman the futility of Israeli-Arab peacemaking. Seriously. That’s what passes for top journalistic analysis about the Middle East.



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