One-two punch in ‘NYT’ includes longtime Israel apologist Friedman saying two-state solution is moribund

James North

Mondoweiss  /  December 19, 2022

No doubt the U.S. pro-Israel lobby held emergency meetings yesterday, after the Sunday New York Times appeared. Two items in the Opinion section must have frightened them. First, a very long report by Thomas Friedman in which the columnist admitted in the opening paragraph that “the prospect for a two-state solution has all but vanished;” then, a full page offering by the entire Editorial Board headlined: “The Ideal of Democracy in a Jewish State Is in Jeopardy.”

Benjamin Netanyahu has already responded angrily to the Times editorial, accusing the newspaper of “demonizing Israel for decades” and “undermining Israel’s elected incoming government.”

The back-to-back Times opinions are worth examining. What’s more, the Times reporting staff should also be squirming, because both pieces relied on information that over the years the paper’s own reporters have ignored, covered up or twisted. The editorial even shamefully had to cite a report in the upstart online publication Axios instead of being able to turn to its own journalists. 

Friedman’s piece, which covered two entire pages in the print edition, is the greater threat to the lobby. Neither he nor the Times editorial writers used the word “apartheid” a single time, even though human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have said it characterizes Israel’s behavior, both inside the pre-1967 borders and in the occupied Palestinian territories. But Friedman clearly continues to break with his own decades-long unstinting support for Israel, as he already signaled back on November 4 in the wake of the Israeli election.

Let’s start with some of Friedman’s challenges to the pro-Israel orthodoxy. After opening by declaring that the two-state solution is “in hospice,” and that “only a miracle cure could save it now,” he actually uses his own recent reporting trip to Israel/Palestine to compensate for a few of his own paper’s failures. First, he cites simple facts; he breaks the Times’s taboo on quoting B’Tselem, the respected Israeli human organization, and points out that in the past year in the West Bank, “roughly 20 Israelis and more than 150 Palestinians have died in violent incidents.” He does use the passive voice, concealing who caused those deaths, but most mainstream reports ignore Palestine casualties completely. 

Friedman also doesn’t whitewash the dangerous Itamar Ben-Gvir, the racist, Jewish-supremacist who is likely the next Minister of National Security as Benjamin Netanyahu returns to power. He notes that Ben-Gvir takes charge of law enforcement agencies that he “would easily be able to weaponize . . . against  the Israeli Arab and Palestinian populations.” Friedman also has little patience for Netanyahu’s promise that he will keep his new ministers under control:

Netanyahu has been basically telling American officials, American Jews and Israel’s Arab allies that although he’s putting foxes in charge of hen houses and distributing gasoline to pyromaniacs, his personal power and savvy will . . . keep his extremist partners from taking Israel over a cliff.”

Friedman also visits Hebron in the occupied West Bank, where Jewish settler/colonist attacks on Palestinians are increasing. He quotes a report in The Times of Israel about a widely reported (and filmed) recent incident, in which one of the occupation soldiers attacked a Jewish pro-Palestinian demonstrator and another sneered, “Ben-Gvir is going to sort things out in this place.” (Did Friedman ask himself why he was unable to cite an account of the same episode from his own newspaper?)

Thomas Friedman did enough of his own legwork to remind you that once upon a time he was an actual reporter himself, before his fact-finding deteriorated into interviews with taxi drivers on his way to mutually self-congratulating appointments with big tech CEOs. 

But the old Friedman has not gone away. Here’s just one example: he does note that 21 percent of the citizens inside Israel’s 1967 borders are Palestinian citizens of Israel, a fact his colleagues on the news side have over the years mostly ignored, and that Palestinian citizens still lag behind Jewish Israelis in all indicators of well-being. But then he offers a partial and ludicrous explanation: “For too many years, the [Israeli] government failed to advance planning and zoning in Israeli Arab areas, so that not a single new Arab city has been built …” A little more reporting might have revealed that this policy is deliberate, and many Palestinians and their Jewish allies believe that it is a step toward expulsion and ethnic cleansing.

Still, Friedman’s continuing partial apostasy will give the pro-Israel media watchdogs like CAMERA and Honest Reporting plenty of frantic work in the days ahead.

Let’s briefly turn to the Times editorial board. No doubt they are congratulating themselves on their bravery, but their work is pathetic and timid, even by contrast with Friedman. At least they do recognize that “Mr. Netanyahu’s government . . . is a significant threat to the future of Israel,” but they still suggest that a two-state solution is possible, making the comical assertion that “the principle of achieving two states remains the bedrock of American and Israeli cooperation.”

The editorial lacks the stronger language in Friedman’s article. There’s no recognition that Netanyahu’s new arsonist security ministers are on the verge of triggering a Third Intifada.

The only practical suggestion in this limp opinion piece is that America’s leaders should say publicly that the Netanyahu arsonists are “troubling,” but then the editorialists reassure themselves that the Biden administration has at least privately discussed “how to manage its meetings with the most extreme members of the new cabinet.” (This is the little scoop that the editorial writers had to glean from Axios.)

Back to Thomas Friedman. The Times allowed readers to comment on his article, and the overwhelming majority of those reactions that were voted most popular basically agreed with him. (By contrast, the editorialists did not permit reader reaction to their work.)

Quite a few readers pointedly asked Friedman: What about the massive U.S. aid to Israel? It may be too much to expect him to come out for the nonviolent Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign. But at the very least: when will he at least call for cutting back the obscene amount of U.S. aid? 

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large