There is no question that Thomas Friedman is a great writer, and his columns on books on issues such as climate change and domestic policy are often brilliant. When it comes to the Middle East, however, there are two distinct Friedmans. One is a clear-eyed, thoughtful analyst of the Arab/Muslim world. The other is a self-appointed spokesperson for the Jewish people who reports on Israel based on his predilections. Friedman acts as though he believes that he should be the prime minister and, when the actual leader of Israel does not behave as Prime Minister Friedman would, Israel gets pilloried in his columns. Both Friedmans were on display in “Jumping Jehoshaphat! Have You Seen How Many Israelis Just Visited the U.A.E.?”
Analyst Friedman starts out by kvelling, as he should, about the Abraham Accords. He marvels that more than 130,000 Israelis have already visited the UAE despite the coronavirus pandemic. He notes how the ties between Israel and the Gulf states, unlike those with Egypt and Jordan, are being propelled from the bottom up by “tourists, students and businesses” rather than by autocratic leaders whose people never embraced peace with Israel.
The Gulf’s leaders are also tyrants, but there is a big difference, which Friedman fails to mention. Israel has no conflict with them. None of their territory was ever at risk and though they made token contributions to the Arab wars against Israel, they were largely content to sit on the sidelines. Their people were still raised on a steady of diet of anti-Semitism, largely from the Arab media, but since most had little or no contact with Jews, they had little of the historic animosity towards Jews.
Though the Jewish community in Bahrain is tiny, Jews there say they feel no discrimination. A female Jewish lawmaker even served as the country’s ambassador to the United States. According to Ross Kriel, a lay leader of the small UAE Jewish community, “The government’s attitude to our community is that they want us to feel comfortable being here, praying here and doing business here.” Jews in both countries are probably safer than those living in Europe.
One big difference between peace between Israel and the Gulf and the treaties with its immediate neighbors is that, outside of the Palestinians, there was no uproar in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, which was expected to support Egypt and Jordan, for example, condemned both. By contrast, the Abraham Accords could not have been signed without Saudi approval and, as Friedman points out, if Saudi Arabia and Israel normalize relations, it would be “one of the most significant realignments in modern Middle East history.”
Friedman rightly asks why a “Lebanese Shiite living in the poor southern suburbs of Beirut having to scramble every day to barter eggs for meat—as the economy teeters on collapse” would not ask why he is “stuck with Iran and its axis of failing proxies like Hezbollah, which just keep letting the past bury our future?”
He should be wondering why every Palestinian in Gaza and the West Bank isn’t asking why they are stuck with their irredentist leaders who deny them their civil rights and have left them stateless and miserable by their unwillingness to make peace with Israel and by feeding them false hopes of replacing Israel and returning to homes they abandoned in 1948. That thought, however, would contradict the “blame Israel first” position of Prime Minister Friedman.
Analyst Friedman correctly observes that the establishment of relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan “could be game-changing.” He even gives credit to former President Donald Trump and his senior adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner, for the breakthrough.
Then Prime Minister Friedman steps in and wants to change the game back by adopting the failed approach of former President Barack Obama in trying to bend Israel to his will. He is horrified that “right-wing Jewish settlers” are “aggressively reaching out to the Gulf Arabs to come visit.” God forbid, they should see life in Israel for themselves rather than filtered through Al Jazeera (or, worse, The New York Times). Echoing the anti-Semites who condemn every positive step Israel takes towards the Palestinians, he calls it “Abraham Accords washing.”
He misses the most important aspect of the accords, which is the end of the Palestinian veto over peace between Israel and the Muslim world. Rather than build on them and recognize that the Gulf states’ frustration with Palestinian intransigence creates an opportunity to pressure the Palestinians, Friedman wants to turn back the clock to 2009.
Prime Minister Friedman wants Biden to “move fast” to convince the nations that normalized ties with Israel—and the Saudis who are on the cusp—to exercise the Palestinian veto. Instead of leveraging their positions to pressure the Palestinians to negotiate, he wants those countries to threaten Israel with reversing their position if the Israelis do not capitulate to the Palestinians. Rather than encourage the Saudis to join the Abraham Accords, he wants the Saudis to condition their doing so on being permitted to open an embassy to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
This “would help preserve the possibility of a two-state deal, would revitalize the 2002 Saudi peace initiative.”
Israel is not going to change its policy regarding Palestinian statehood in exchange for a Saudi embassy. It will not endorse the first stage in the liberation of “Palestine” by accepting the division of Jerusalem and a Palestinian state based on the 1949 armistice lines. There is also no reason to believe the Palestinians will alter their position if the Saudis normalize relations with Israel. To the contrary, they are more likely to react with the same apoplexy they did to the Abraham Accords because they oppose any recognition of the Jewish state.
To understand why Friedman throws in the Saudi peace initiative, which was supplanted by an even more unacceptable Arab League plan, you have to know that Friedman took credit for what he argued was a major step towards peace by the Saudis. The truth was the Saudis had no sudden interest in peace with Israel, what they had was a PR catastrophe following 9/11 that required them to present a narrative, which Friedman was happy to advance, that they were really peacemakers rather than supporters of terrorism.
The essence of that plan was to withhold recognition of Israel until the creation of a Palestinian state. Friedman wants to return to that position, which prevented normalization for nearly two decades and denied the Gulf states all the benefits he applauded.
As I have documented, some of Biden’s advisers are bad enough; imagine if the president was taking advice from Friedman. We can only hope that Biden listens to the elected prime minister of Israel rather than a wannabe.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”