NYT explains to us how little US journalists understand Middle East

Posted: August 10, 2009 by Jonathan Boyko in Israel, Own Articles, Palestinians, Press and Media, US, West Bank

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman

FOR MORE YEARS than your fingers pro-Israeli groups alleged international journalists understood little about the moods, intentions and politics in the Middle East. The notion seems fair – after all, most of them visit the region occasionally, staying for half a year at most – with some exceptions. The exception, in this case, is New York Times‘ columnist and book author Thomas L. Friedman. One of his most known works is “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, previously mentioned on these pages. Not to bore you with details, I will shortly remind you that the book tells of heroic Lebanese, living their lives under corrupt government, terror and Israeli attacks, proceeding to talk about corrupt, noisy and uncivilized Israelis, entangled in their Holocaust victimhood.

In Saturday’s column, Friedman cheerfully tells us of rising economy, thanks to a certain chain of events:

…improved Palestinian policing that has led to more Palestinian investment and trade that has led to the Israeli Army dismantling more checkpoints in the West Bank that has led to more Palestinian travel and commerce.

He is, of course, correct. As most pro-Israeli activists would tell you, the major reason for poverty within Gaza and the West Bank is terror. As soon as Palestinian politicians took matters in their own hands, establishing an armed force capable of restraining the terrorists – situation got better. At least, in the West Bank. Gazans, still under violent reign of HAMAS, suffer the blockade and hardship.

Let me take a brief step away from Friedman’s case. It sure took Palestinian leaders time to understand it might be better to keep suicide bombers at bay, rather than allow them into Israel. It took a while – but they got it. Looking back, however, it is important to note that steps taken by Israeli leadership – namely, removal of many checkpoints – could have, and should have, been taken earlier in time. I know, the atmosphere wasn’t same: there was no American pressure to ease restrictions on Palestinians, and Israeli leaders were preoccupied with the war with HAMAS. Netanyahu still could allow civilian traffic to flow more easily, presenting it as good will, not bowing to Obama’s pressure. It is important to understand, however, that Israelis tested the PA. After huge waves of outrage following Israel’s Gaza campaign – including several terror attacks – Israelis needed to see that PA can hold the masses back, keeping calm in the West Bank.

Back to our subject now: with him correct on the issue of policing the Palestinian lands, Friedman goes on to show us his understanding of Israeli-Palestinian relations is lacking:

Because the West Bank today is largely hidden from Israelis by a wall, Israelis are just starting to learn from their own press what is going on there. On July 31, many Israelis were no doubt surprised to read this quote in the Maariv daily from Omar Hashim, deputy chairman of the Chamber of Commerce of Nablus, the commercial center of the West Bank: “Traders here are satisfied,” said Hashim. “Their sales are rising. They feel that life is returning to normal. There is a strong sense of optimism.”

“Largely hidden from Israelis by a wall”? Mr. Friedman surely forgets that Israelis have one major hobby: watching the news, reading newspapers and obsessively reading updates on Israeli news portals, such as Ynet and Walla. Israeli news agencies’ contacts in West Bank and Gaza are plenty, with many Jewish journalists speaking Arabic.

Take Ehud Yaari, for example. He is probably the most famous Arab world analyst in Israel, appearing daily on Israel Channel 2 news, with video clips and sound bites from Arab world press. Or Suleiman a-Shaffi, also on Channel 2, visiting nearly every West Bank town and city, as well as Gaza. Or Zvi Yechezkely, Channel 10 news. Or – Oded Granoth, Channel 1 news. Each Israeli news channel – and major newspaper, for that matter – has its own team, visiting Palestinian cities, monitoring Palestinian press. Palestinian daily life, politics, inner struggles, are all but “hidden” from Israeli view. Any Israeli possesses more knowledge about Palestine than average Times reader.

Friedman then writes that Palestinians wish for their state to be established “tomorrow”, adding “that is not going to happen” – omitting the fact that the major bulwark on the way of peace is refusal to recognize Israel as state for the Jews by major Palestinian players, particularly Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Telling the tale of improving economy, the author finishes his article with this passage:

America must nurture this virtuous cycle: more money to train credible Palestinian troops, more encouragement for Israel’s risk-taking in eliminating checkpoints, more Palestinian economic growth and quicker negotiations on the contours of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Hamas and Gaza can join later. Don’t wait for them. If we build it, they will come.

Sadly, Friedman again reflects on his inability to bear in mind history. After all, after signing the 1993 Oslo accords, that is precisely what Israel attempted to do – set up an organized Palestinian police force, which could police Palestinian Autonomy. Those proved themselves particularly helpful since October 2000 – they openly participated at violent riots, shooting their US and Russia-made firearms at IDF troops. Quite a few Palestinian security forces members participated in terror attacks against Israel, killing soldiers and civilians. All in the name of peace, of course.

And this fact is the most saddening, I must admit. Together with Friedman, current US administration dwells on today – letting go of the yesterday. It does not take a rocket scientist to comprehend those well-trained Palestinian security forces could turn their arms against Israel. Remember – incitement against Jews got another push in the back from FATAH, with it opening new TV propaganda channel, to battle one of HAMAS. Sources familiar with the content say the anti-Israel and anti-Jew rhetoric transmitted to every day Palestinians is as vicious as ever.

It is true, the United States should support Palestinian Autonomy. But should it be taking same mistaken steps it took a decade and a half ago? Should US taxpayer pay for training of Palestinian terrorists? Is there anyone doing background checks on people undergoing training? How come Obama’s administrations puts forward no demands for PA? What would happen if those trained security forces attack Israelis? Would PA be required to return the funds to the US? Would it be required to take any further steps?

All those question would go unanswered. Friedman joins NYT’s Roger Cohen: both dwelled in their own land of Oz. However, Cohen admitted he made wrongful judgment – about Iran. Would Friedman do same if his simplistic plan fails?

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