Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why Thomas Friedman hates Bibi

A column by Thomas Friedman in the NYT has provoked a viscious response on the front pages of Maariv.

Earlier this week, Friedman blasted Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu for refusing to halt settlement buildings in order to give peace a chance, and essentially accuses him of bringing about the end of Israel as a Jewish state:

Reading the headlines these days, I can’t help but repeat this truism: If you jump off the top of an 80-story building, for 79 floors you can think you’re flying. It’s the sudden stop at the end that tells you you’re not. It’s striking to me how many leaders and nations are behaving today as though they think they can fly — and ignoring that sudden stop at the end that’s sure to come....

Rather than take the initiative and say to Arabs and Palestinians, “You want a settlement freeze? Here it is, now let’s see what you’re ready to agree to,” Netanyahu toys with President Obama, makes Israel look like it wants land more than peace and risks never forging a West Bank deal — thereby permanently absorbing its 2.5 million Palestinians and eventually no longer having a Jewish majority. That’s the sudden stop at the end — unless the next war comes first. But, for now, Bibi seems to think he can fly.
A couple of days later, on the front page of Maariv and on a two-page spread inside, Avi Ratzon uses some particularly strong language against Friedman:

Dear Mr Friedman, we understand your weakness in everything that concerns Binyamin Netanyahu. When you were volunteering to pick oranges in a kibbutz, he followed in the footsteps of his brother Yoni and volunteered to the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit, where he became an outstanding officer. He later became Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, a foreign minister and a prime minister. Could it be he had realised your dreams, and this is the reason for your obsession and weakness for the man? It’s not certain, we’re skeptical people here, and still we wouldn’t have rejected the possibility out of hand. After all, jealousy is a human, humane issue...

But we should ask the question, how long can you go on squeezing the lemon of a Jew who volunteered in a kibbutz, who had a Bar Mitzva, who’s a Zionist and who cares about Israel. Stop, enough. Stop threatening and get out of the frame. There are plenty of journalists here who think that your entire existence is indeed one of jealousy, which is why you target Netanyahu; that your worldview is identical to that of the radical Left here in Israel, and that you are serving as an escort boy providing embarrassing journalist services to Obama, who is your light, your support and your god.

Well, it seems unlikely that the multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, America's senior columnist, who has earned enough to live here, is jealous of Bibi. To me this reads like stereotypical Israeli fantasy about how a diaspora Jew - weak and nebbish - must feel: in awe of those strong, independent Israelis. And I strongly object to the implication that diaspora Jews cannot criticise Israel; indeed, that they should put up or shut up. While I think that most of Friedman's comments on Netanyahu are both wrong and naive, I don't see that anything he says removes him from the bounds of normative discourse.

That said, his tone (in this piece - read the whole thing - and in recent interviews) is striking in its contempt and anger for Netanyahu. What, other than jealousy, explains this? Three things.

First, Friedman does genuinely believe that his policies are destructive for Israel, and as a true friend of the Jewish state, is worried. (I agree with him that the lack of a peace agreement endangers Israel's future as a Jewish state, but disagree with him that the main obstacle to reaching an agreement is Netanyahu).

Second, there is a group of diaspora Jews (and indeed, a smaller group of Israelis) who have never got over Netanyahu's first term, and find it impossible to comprehend that many years have passed, that local conditions and the Israeli public have changed, and that Netanyahu himself has matured and grown. They continue to relate to him with the contempt of the mid-1990s, and cannot free themselves from it no matter what he does or what the Palestinians do this time round. For some of these people, hatred of Bibi is a convenient way of channelling their anger away from Israelis in general for making the "wrong" decisions. He's their proxy.

Third, I can't help but feel that there is something in Bibi's personality which brings out the worst in bullies like Obama - and some strong people like Friedman. As Ratzon notes, Friedman has no problem speaking respectfully about some far nastier types - dictators in the Arab world, for example. But for Bibi, he has nothing but contempt. It is as if, despite Netanyahu's intelligence, dedication to his people and other qualities, he perceives Netanyahu to be an inferior specimen. This is why he finds his defiance of Obama (and indeed, of Friedman's own wisdom) so infuriating. That pathetic little schnip!, I can hear him telling himself. How dare he!

This is what I think is Bibi's problem. Despite his strong rhetoric, he is weak: indecisive, with a tendency to fold under pressure, physically nervous around Obama. Aggressive people pick up on this and don't respond well. Weakness actually riles and provokes them, and they pounce on it.

For people like Friedman (and Obama), Bibi is the village idiot who is witholding the keys to regional piece, and he just can't stand it.

RELATED: Bradley Burston on Friedman and Bibi.

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