November 18, 2013 · 2 Comments
By Murray Polner:
In Thomas Friedman’s 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem he wrote of his father-in-law being stopped by a business associate who warned him, "Your son-in-law Tom Friedman is the most hated man in New York City today." His crime? Daring to report that Israeli troops behaved less than admirably in the invasion of Lebanon as well as describing Israel’s role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
Say what you will about the Times’ star Op-Ed columnist Thomas Friedman but for now at least "Let Us Praise" him. Having reported from Beirut and Jerusalem from 1979 to the eighties, he’s at it again, posing a fundamental question about Israel’s campaign to destroy Obama’s plan to ward off congressional sanctions against Iran and be allowed to work out a deal restricting Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb. More and more sanctions, actively promoted by Israel and its Lobby in and out of the Congress, as a subsequent Times editorial argued “could cause negotiations between the two sides to collapse and, worse, become a pathway to war.”
In “What About Us?” Friedman asks a question rarely asked in public by timid pundits: Do Israel’s (and their new authoritarian Saudi friends) concerns take precedence over America’s vital national interests in the Middle East? “We, America, are not just hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, which they alone get the final say on.” All this from a columnist who has long positioned himself in the center, where in a later column he saw “the real Israel, not the fantasy, do-no-wrong Israel peddled by its most besotted supporters or the do-no-right colonial monster portrayed by its most savage critics.”
America’s vital interests in the Middle East, he writes, are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism, oil, opposing the spread of nuclear weapons and especially “ending the 34-year-old Iran-U.S. cold war,” Blocking the current talks in Geneva may be fine for Jerusalem, fairly close to Iran, and Riyadh, caught up in the endless clash between Sunnis and Shiites. But not for the U.S.
Relying on one of his favorite techniques, Friedman quotes two “experts” on Iran, the better to strengthen his case. The first, from the Carnegie Endowment, tells him “Just because regional actors [unnamed] see diplomacy with Iran as a zero-sum game—vanquish or be vanquished—doesn’t mean America should.” And then he turns—again with his obvious approval—to an Iranian-American and onetime assistant to U.N.Secretary General Kofi Annan, who speaks of Middle Easterners [unnamed] who favor “a war without end” and then adds—and I can visualize Friedman nodding Yes!!—“They can have it. But it can’t be our war.”
Today Israelis, their lobbyists and sympathizers, are actively and publicly involved in challenging American foreign policy. (Would any other country be allowed to publicly lobby Congress against a President ?). In Israel, alluding to the Holocaust, Netanyahu urged a visiting American Jewish group to “stand up and be counted” against the Obama administration’s efforts to seal a deal with Iran in Geneva.” I will not be silenced, ever,” he went on. “Not on my watch. When the Jewish people were silent on matters that related to our survival, you know what happened.” He received an ovation. The next day, the Wall Street Journal and the Times reported that Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s Economic Minister, was on his way to the U.S. to rally American Jews to help defeat the administration. Already at work, Israel’s Lobby and its friends plus bellicose neocons that never saw a war they didn’t love, and politicians ever-eager for donations, went into a full court press demanding more sanctions against Iran.
But a growing dilemma for Israel’s unquestioning backers is that we American Jews are not “One,” as a discarded United Jewish Appeal fundraising slogan once went. We may even differ with one or more Israeli policies as the latest Pew study of American Jewry revealed. Absolute loyalty to Israel was found generally among the religious and elderly. Secular and younger Jews could be supportive, lukewarm or even indifferent. For example, “Many American Jews,” the study concluded, “express reservations about Israel’s approach to the [Palestine] peace process” while 44% believed that “settlement construction hurts Israel’s own security interest.” In truth, American Jews have always ranged from anarchist to Zionist. We are liberal, conservative and radical, and both one percent and 99 percent. Noam Chomsky is as Jewish as Abraham Foxman. In short, America’s Jews are Americans.
Even in Israel there are dissenting views from the middle, which the Times’ Israel bureau would do well to cover in some depth. Dalia Dassa Kay, who directs the Center for Middle East Public Policy at Rand Corp. pointed out in the LA Times the prominent and informed Israelis, none of whom can be called dovish, who reject Netanyahu’s extremism and support the Geneva talks, which they deem much preferable to war or ending up with Iran as a nuclear nation. She cites David Menashri, the respected Israeli specialist on Iran, Dan Meridor, once a Netanyahu cabinet member, Ephraim Halevy former head of Mossad. and Dan Gillerman, once Israel’s ambassador to the UN, all of whom believe Netanyahu is damaging Israel. They and many more Israelis like them are fully aware that Netanyahu and his American “do-no-wrong” backers are playing with fire. “Americans,” Kaye, concludes, “need to hear more from such Israeli voices to better understand the complex landscape in Israel when it comes to Iran.”
If the Geneva talks are wrecked Israel and her allies will be responsible, setting the stage for a possible if not probable regional war that will certainly involve the U.S. If that happens, as the Times editorialist wrote a few days after Friedman’s piece, “Mr. Netanyahu and the hard-line interest groups [unnamed] will own the failure, and the rest of us will pay the price.” Or as Marine Corps General James L. Jones –or was it Gary Sick, Iran specialist, both of whom served on the U.S. National Security Council?—famously said, “If you liked Iraq, you’ll love Iran.”
Murray Polner writes our Keeping Score column. He was the editor of Present Tense, a magazine published by the American Jewish Committee from 1973-1990.