Commentary Magazine


Friends, Enemies, and Columnists

Among the lowest forms of political punditry is the meme by which a writer demonizes a political opponent by identifying them as allies of a known evil. So when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls casino mogul Sheldon Adelson “Iran’s Best Friend,” it tells us a lot, but none of it has much to do with the controversial billionaire donor to conservative and Jewish causes.

Such a column is one more indication that Friedman has definitively run out of steam in his decades-long run as one of the Times’s op-ed writers. Since assuming his current perch he has shoveled out an unending stream of mainstream liberal conventional wisdom on a variety of topics not limited to his supposed expertise in foreign affairs, but with a particular interest in depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a latter-day Attila the Hun. Regardless of what you think about Netanyahu, Friedman’s efforts to treat those who support the Jewish state as morally equivalent to those who wish to destroy it is a tired cliché. So, too, is the idea that anyone who supports Netanyahu is doing, albeit unwittingly, the bidding of Iran’s Islamist leadership. Like his deservedly mocked columns in which he used anonymous, and no doubt mythical, cabdrivers, to serve as mouthpieces for his own views, this sort of apposition is predictable and not so much ineptly argued, as not argued at all. Friedman simply assumes that the Times’s readership will make the connection between a leading GOP donor and evil without the heavy lifting of actually proving why Adelson’s insistence that would-be Republican candidates refrain from calling the West Bank “occupied” rather than disputed qualifies.

But the definitive proof that this was just the latest example of Friedman mailing it in rather than wading into a topic and making a coherent argument came from his own newspaper today in the form of a column from Shmuel Rosner, who now writes opinions for its online edition from Israel. In it, Rosner relates the dispute about Adelson’s attempt to acquire the Makor Rishon newspaper to add to a collection that already includes Israel Hayom, the Jewish state’s most-read daily. As Rosner writes, some people are up in arms about the acquisition, but they are exactly the types that Friedman most despises: supporters of the settler movement. Economics Minister Naftali Bennett and others to the right of the prime minister fear that Makor Rishon will become, like Israel Hayom, a strong supporter of Netanyahu rather than a critic. While Bennett’s risible and futile attempt to handicap Adelson’s papers with legislation intended to lower their circulation need not trouble American readers much, what they can glean from this account is that the settlers fear Adelson will use his bully pulpits to back a peace agreement in the event Netanyahu ever signs one. Rosner’s concern is that Adelson may be about to “silence the Israeli right.” Thus, even though I believe Rosner is wrong about there being a danger that anyone in Israel will be silenced, Friedman’s absurd hyperbole about Adelson is not only lazy but also inaccurate.

Like the Israeli left that our Tom Wilson rightly depicted as being stuck in an Oslo time warp, Friedman’s problem is that his predictions of Israeli doom have proved as foolish as his best-selling effort to convince us that technology would trump religion, prejudice, and nationalism in the Arab world. He gives away the game when he concedes, “I don’t know if Israel has a Palestinian partner for a secure withdrawal from the West Bank, or ever will.” He then follows this snippet of realism by claiming that Israel must find a way to get out of the West Bank, peace partner or not. But the reason why the overwhelming majority of Israelis have rejected another willy-nilly withdrawal regardless of consequences is that they have no interest in repeating what happened in Gaza in 2005 when Ariel Sharon did just that.

Friedman has a history of trying to delegitimize supporters of Israel. As I wrote here in 2011, his efforts to depict the ovations that Netanyahu received that year from Congress as being “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” reinforced a central myth of anti-Semitism about Jews and money. To use the same logic employed by Friedman today against Adelson, one could say that by doing so, the columnist was showing himself to be an ally of Hitler’s spiritual descendants. But Friedman’s umbrage at his critics then has not tempered his subsequent writings using the same sort of invective.

The problem here is not just that writer’s hypocrisy and his lack of intellectual integrity. The much-heralded exchange between Adelson and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie about what to call the West Bank was merely an attempt to level the rhetorical playing field on which the Israelis and the Palestinians are located. In doing so, the man whom Friedman denounces as “crude” was actually showing a greater grasp of nuance than the columnist who poses as a Middle East expert.

Israel’s friends in this country have every right to speak up and ask potential candidates to speak clearly about the Middle East, especially when so many, like Christie, clearly have no real grasp of foreign policy or the details of the conflict with the Palestinians. In a political landscape filled with foreign-policy blind men, a one-eyed pundit like Friedman likes to play the king. Having reflexively denounced Netanyahu and all those who support him as enemies of peace for so long, the decision of the Palestinians to walk out of the negotiations—a stance that is, for all intents and purposes, a fourth “no” to peace in the last 15 years—Friedman refuses to draw conclusions from events that have contradicted his past positions. Nor does he recognize any distinctions between those who back Israel’s democratically-elected government and a settler movement that is horrified by Netanyahu’s embrace of the two-state solution. In writing in this manner, Friedman tells us nothing about who is a friend or an enemy of Israel, but a lot about his own lack of intellectual rigor.

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