I watched the recent discussion between Thomas Friedman and Peter Beinart with great interest. Friedman, a New York Times columnist and arguably the journalist who has most shaped the US debate over Israel-Palestine in recent decades, was invited onto Beinart’s podcast to talk about Zionism, the two-state solution and Israel’s latest far-right government.
Friedman spoke at length about the evolution of his thinking about Israel-Palestine and Zionism over the course of his life, and whether he thinks the two-state paradigm still makes sense, subjects which he has addressed in his many books on the Middle East and were not of much interest to me on this occasion. I was more interested to hear if he had anything more to say about his recent columns in the New York Times which highlighted powerfully a growing wedge between American Jews and Israel.
In his latest piece, Friedman urged US President Joe Biden to “save Israel” from becoming a bastion of zealotry. “Israel is on the verge of a historic transformation — from a full-fledged democracy to something less, and from a stabilising force in the region to a destabilising one,” said Friedman. “Can Joe Biden save Israel?” he asked, with the looming possibility of it turning into an “illiberal bastion of zealotry”. In December Friedman wrote another piece in the NYT under the headline “The Israel We Knew Is Gone”. In another column he asked, “What in the World Is Happening in Israel?”
In his interview with Beinart, Freidman was more cautious with his words than one would have expected after reading his NYT columns. For example, in “What in the World is Happening in Israel?” he argued that “the prospect for a two-state solution has all but vanished.” He even acknowledged that no one wants to formally declare it dead and buried, because categorically ruling it out would have enormous ramifications. Hence, diplomats, politicians and liberal Jewish organisations pretend that it still has a faint heartbeat.
In his remarks about the two-state solution during the Beinart interview, Friedman was not so keen to declare it dead and buried. He cited Palestinian pollsters to argue that it’s still the only viable option. “How do you make a difference which make this [Israel and Palestine] better for people on both sides on more days and in more ways?” That’s the principal which guides him, he said, while insisting that two states for two people inside historic Palestine remains the best option.
Both Friedman and Beinart are liberal Jews. Unlike Beinart, though — who has had a very public political conversion regarding Israel and Zionism — Friedman has been less willing to part company with his past loyalties. That, however, does not mean that he has not become disillusioned over the direction that Israel is taking. I sensed that the main reason Freedman is less trenchant in his views over Israel than Beinart is because, as one of the main commentators in the US on the Middle East, the NYT columnist is less concerned about the rights and wrongs of “the conflict” as much as he is about his audience. “Do you want to make a point, or do you want to make a difference?” is another of his key principals, Freidman said, shooting back with a prickly response when Beinart presented him with a charge sheet of Israeli crimes against the Palestinians, beginning with the ethnic cleansing in 1948 through to the crime of apartheid.
Having spent most of his professional career covering Israel and Palestine, usually in defence of the occupation state, Friedman has come to see himself as someone with influence not just in the US, but also in Israel, and therefore does not want to say anything to undermine his position. Being at the centre of the debate where one can influence the views of people one disagrees with is better than shouting from the outside. That is the logic, I guess, but it looks as though it’s the only thing that’s keeping Friedman from making a political conversion similar to Beinart’s few years ago.
The flaw in this is obvious. For a start, Israel’s trajectory since its founding has been moving away from everything liberals claim to value and respect. Despite their number and influence, liberal advocates of Israel have failed miserably to halt its transformation into an apartheid state. Instead of being a check on Israel’s behaviour, they checked-in their own values and principals. What difference has it made being “within” and part of the conversation, I’d like to ask Friedman and others like him. It seems to be a perfectly apt question.
Friedman did offer a possible explanation for Israel’s behaviour. The people he is “most angry” with are pro-Israel lobby groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other American Jewish organisations. He accused them of doing the bidding of far-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Explaining Washington’s inability to hold Israel to account, he said that the US administration is where it is with regard to Israel because pro-Israel lobby groups “at every turn use their power and influence” to prevent America from adopting a “more serious and vigorous” policy. “Bibi [Benjamin] Netanyahu was able to speak to the US Congress because it was bought and paid for by AIPAC,” he said, underlining the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.
During their discussion, Friedman and Beinart spoke briefly about the allegation that Israel practices apartheid and the claim that criticism of Zionism is anti-Semitic, a view which is being pushed through the adoption of the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. The view that Israel practices apartheid should not be controversial, said Friedman. He has used the term himself, and many Israeli leaders have warned that the state would preside over an apartheid system if it failed to grant Palestinians their rights. As for criticism of Zionism being ant-Semitic, he said he just won’t go there, because such a proposition is ridiculous.
This was an interesting discussion. In agreeing to take part, Thomas Friedman has demonstrated that liberal Jews have no reason left to defend Israel.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.