Thursday, June 5, 2008

Thomas Friedman’s Call for "Radical Pragmatism" (Opinion – NYT – June 4, 2008)

I’m copying here a recent New York Times opinion piece by the renowned columnist and author, Thomas Friedman. Friedman’s words carry weight and his best judgments should be taken seriously. In my opinion, however, his “radical” proposal is not nearly radical enough. Nor do I think it will work. I have intruded my comments between his, in an irenic spirit of dialogue with a man whose work I respect very much. Readers’ comments are most welcome.

TF (NYT): When I reported from Israel in the mid-1980s, the big debate here was whether Israel’s settlement-building in the West Bank had passed a point of no return — a point where any serious withdrawal became virtually impossible to imagine. The question was often framed as: “Is it five minutes to midnight or five minutes after midnight?” Well, having taken a little drive through part of the West Bank, as I always do when I visit, it strikes me more than ever that it’s not only five after midnight, it’s five after midnight and a whole week later.

If by these remarks Friedman means that the settlements and their infrastructure (roads, expropriated land, security barriers, settler-only roads, military closures and checkpoints, lost farmland) has so fractured and fragmented the West Bank that a truly viable, let alone vibrant and autonomous, Palestinian economy is impossible, I agree.

TF (NYT): The West Bank today is an ugly quilt of high walls, Israeli checkpoints, “legal” and “illegal” Jewish settlements, Arab villages, Jewish roads that only Israeli settlers use, Arab roads and roadblocks. This hard and heavy reality on the ground is not going to be reversed by any conventional peace process. “The two-state solution is disappearing,” said Mansour Tahboub, senior editor, at the West Bank newspaper Al-Ayyam.

Once again, I agree: the two-state solution may well be dead. If so, Israeli expansionism has killed it. Friedman’s drive-by assessment of Palestinian “reality,” however, does not begin to describe the grind of life under Occupation. To us outsiders, a “checkpoint” is but an unobtrusive circle on a map. Even for those who enter the West Bank, checkpoints appear as shiny terminal buildings or as a few relatively harmless army jeeps. To Palestinians carrying green ID cards, however, these same checkpoints mean something entirely different: wasted time and lost money, personal humiliation, spoiled produce, inaccessible markets, separation from family, physical danger and more. The problem here is not merely physical—Friedman’s “hard and heavy reality on the ground”—but also psychological and practical: the painful daily reality of millions of Palestinians. I suspect on this point Friedman would agree.

Two further bleats. First, why are Palestinian communities so often called “Arab villages”? There are, of course, many villages in the West Bank populated by Arabic speaking people. But there are also many substantial towns, like Tulkarm (60K), Jenin (36K), Bethlehem (30K), Qalqilya (45K), Jericho (21K), and Ramallah (26K) as well as several modest cities like Nablus (135K) where I’m currently living, Hebron (170K) and of course East Jerusalem (with its c. 242K Palestinians). Those who speak exclusively of “Arab villages” disguise and minimize the demographic impact of Israel’s military occupation.

Second, why “Arab villages”? Why not “Palestinian”? Do we really grant too much when we embrace the term that these indigenous Arabic speakers have chosen for themselves? True: there is currently no autonomous state of Palestine. And true: the term only emerged in modern times after 1967. But designations like Philistia, Palaestina and Filastin have a long history here, a history in which many, many West Bank families have a share. Add to that the struggling, stumbling Palestinian National Authority that needs our financial support and moral encouragement. For us to speak of Palestine and Palestinians is simply to honor the emerging identity of an indigenous people group. Indeed, Friedman does as much in the rest of this piece.

TF (NYT): Indeed, we are at a point now where the only thing that might work is what I would call “radical pragmatism” — a pragmatism that is as radical and energetic as the extremism that it hopes to nullify. Without that, I fear, Israel will remain permanently pregnant with a stillborn Palestinian state in its belly.

Not sure about the pregnancy metaphor, but I’m listening..

TF (NYT): Why we need a radical departure is obvious: the business-as-usual course that Israelis and Palestinians are on right now does not have enough energy or authority to produce a solution. With the encouragement of the Bush administration, Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank are negotiating a draft peace treaty that supposedly will be put on the shelf, until the Palestinians have enough capability to implement it. I seriously doubt that the parties will reach an agreement, let alone have the energy to implement it.

The Israeli-Palestinian energy shortage today is on three levels: First is the level of hope and trust. Ever since the breakdown of the Oslo agreement, the romance has gone out of the peace process. Israelis and Palestinians remind me of a couple who, after a stormy courtship, finally get married and one year after they tie the knot they each cheat on the other: Israelis kept on building settlements and the Palestinians kept on building hate. When you cheat and have war after peace, trust vanishes for a long time.

Hmmm. Israelis build settlements and Palestinians cultivate hatred. When I walk the streets of old Hebron, most of the hatred I witness has been cultivated among Jewish settlers and is directed at Palestinians. Visit the tiny village of Yanoun (15K SE of Nablus) and you will meet one hundred or so inhabitants who have, since 1996, faced violence and hatred from settlers in nearby Itamar and its outposts. Oh, and did you read about the herds of wild boars released this week by Ariel settlers into the region of Salfit where they destroyed fields and terrorized residents?

Yes, there is cultivated hatred among Palestinians. A hatred that comes in many varieties. Palestinians hate checkpoints, like Huwarra outside of Nablus, where they are regularly penned up and humiliated. They hate their lack of freedom. Many refer routinely to the Israelis as their enemies. Palestinian fighters hate the IDF enough to die in combat. Islamist militants have elevated that hatred to a fine and deadly art. But it simply not the case that Palestinians have cornered the market on “hatred,” as Friedman’s remarks seem to imply.

Moreover, most people don’t understand that the settlement industry requires a vast and intrusive infrastructure: security, roads, reallocated water, checkpoints, barriers, stolen land, all of which severely compromises Palestinian life. To outsiders, a settlement would seem modest, unobtrusive, innocuous. A few wagons drawn up in a circle, perhaps. Don’t settlers live on the uncharted frontier and know how to chop wood and use an outhouse? How many people know that the area east of Jerusalem allocated to the “settlement” of Ma’ale Adummim is actually larger in area than the city of Tel Aviv, all of it carved out of the West Bank, and that its presence effectively eliminates the contiguity of a future Palestinian state. One of the principal cultivators of hatred among Palestinians, then, is the Israeli settlement.

TF (NYT): The trust deficit is exacerbated by the fact that after Israel quit the Gaza Strip in 2005, Palestinians, instead of building Singapore there, built Somalia and focused not on how to make microchips, but on how to make rockets to hit Israel.

Hamas’ practice of lobbing Qassam rockets at Israeli communities is evil. Qassams may be primitive and unsophisticated but they are killing innocent people. Moreover, they do little to advance Palestinian wellbeing. On the contrary, they help the IDF justify its siege of Gaza while tempering international criticism of the collective punishment that Israel daily inflicts upon 1½ million Gazans.

But did the residents of Gaza, after the pullout, foolishly opt not to “build Singapore” or “make microchips”? Even allowing for poetic license, Mr. Friedman’s characterization of post-pullout Gaza is a painfully misleading. Israel’s “unilateral disengagement” from Gaza left the tiny territory surrounded, sealed, tightly controlled and without any commercial ties to the West Bank. As several observers have drearily reported, Gaza became the world’s largest open-air prison. A non-viable economy does not suddenly become viable simply because all the prison guards abandon the quad to patrol from the wall.

TF (NYT): The second energy shortage comes from the fact that Israel, with the wall that it has erected around the West Bank, has so effectively shut down Palestinian suicide bombers that the Israeli public right now feels no sense of urgency, especially with the Israeli economy booming. The West Bank behind the wall might as well be in Afghanistan.

“Today, you have neither the romanticism of the peace process before Oslo fell apart nor a visible disaster knocking at the gates of Israel’s consciousness,” noted the Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit.

Mr. Friedman makes an important point here; many Israelis are profoundly ignorant of what goes on behind the Wall. Most never go there. Of those who do, most travel on ethnically cleansed bypass roads to reach subsidized commuter settlements—settlements many don’t even know are built across the “Green Line” on land Israel occupied in 1967 (41 years ago today).

There is, however, some debate about the cause of the decline in suicide bombings. Not everyone agrees that the Wall is principally responsible. I shall leave that to others to sort out. But it does not take a senior analyst to see that the serpentine route of the Wall is mostly about acquiring land, not about insuring security. Security concerns cannot explain, for example, why some Palestinian towns now find themselves on the Israeli side of the Wall, cut off from the rest of Palestine. Predictably, the IDF has responded to these Palestinians trapped in a Twilight Zone between Green Line and “Security Fence” by declaring their enclave a “closed military area” and requiring each adult inhabitant to get a “permanent resident permit” to live in his own home. In my view, we don’t yet know whether, in the long run, Israel will be more or less secure when its Wall/Fence/Barrier is finally complete.

TF (NYT): The third energy shortage is the fact that the political system in both Israel and among the Palestinians is so internally divided that neither one can generate the authority to take a big decision.

Only the U.S. can overcome this diplomatic brownout by offering some radical pragmatism, and the logic would be this: If Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not get control over at least part of the West Bank soon, he will have no authority to sign any draft peace treaty with Israel. He will be totally discredited.

But Israel cannot cede control over any part of the West Bank without being assured that someone credible is in charge. Rockets from Gaza land on the remote Israeli town of Sderot. Rockets from the West Bank could hit, and close, Israel’s international airport. That is an intolerable risk. Israel has got to start ceding control over at least part of the West Bank but in a way that doesn’t expose the Jewish state to closure of its airport.

Radical pragmatism would say that the only way to balance the Palestinians’ need for sovereignty now with Israel’s need for a withdrawal now, but without creating a security vacuum, is to enlist a trusted third party — Jordan — to help the Palestinians control whatever West Bank land is ceded to them. Jordan does not want to rule the Palestinians, but it, too, has a vital interest in not seeing the West Bank fall under Hamas rule.

Without a radically pragmatic new approach — one that gets Israel moving out of the West Bank, gets the Palestinian Authority real control and sovereignty, but one which also addresses the deep mistrust by bringing in Jordan as a Palestinian partner — any draft treaty will be dead on arrival.

I agree that a third party is desperately needed to resolve this intractable stand-off, but I don’t think Jordan is it. The only force on earth strong enough to make both parties in the dispute smarten up, make concessions, live up to treaties and get on with the job of stabilizing the region is the United States of America. Why? Because the U.S. injects more than $3,000,000,000.00 annually into the Israeli economy (one-fifth of the entire U.S. aid budget, according to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs). The road to peace in Israel and Palestine runs through Washington, D.C. with D standing for Dollars and C standing for Cents.

Only Washington, not Jordan, can demand an end to Israeli settlement expansion. Only Washington, not Jordan, can require Israel to halt its inhumane policies of house demolition and collective punishment. Only Washington, not Jordan, can insist upon a contiguous, economically viable Palestinian territory. These demands, tied unequivocally to foreign aid, would not make the state of Israel more vulnerable to attack. They would make it more secure. And it is Washington, not Jordan, whose “radical” diplomacy and “pragmatic” statesmanship, backed up by its checkbook, can provide the level of support non-militants within the Palestinian leadership will need if they are going to stem the violence and win the peace on their side of the Line.

The question I asked my Palestinian students today, as news broke of Clinton’s defeat in the Democratic primary, is whether a McCain or an Obama presidency would make any substantive difference on the ground here in Nablus. Not a single student expressed optimism. Given the campaign rhetoric so far, I have seen little reason to question their judgment.

1 comment:

Aryeh Amihay said...


I enjoyed this, though we disagree on some points, as we both agree and disagree with Friedman on varying points.

Here is my own response to the same Friedman editorial: