This story originally appeared in Mondoweiss on Nov. 6, 2022. It is shared here with permission.
This site has been second to none in our biting criticism of how the influential New York Times opinion journalist Thomas Friedman covers (or ignores) Israel/Palestine. But his latest column is a pleasant surprise. The headline is: “The Israel We Knew Is Gone.” He goes on to indict the next Israeli government, using far tougher language than we would have expected from him, and he does his own reporting to back up his harsh view — instead of relying on the timid news articles in his own newspaper.
Friedman’s strongly-worded column is not just valuable on its own. He might also have emboldened Times editors to allow their own reporters in Israel/Palestine to start telling more truths.
Here’s some of what he relayed to his readers. He said that Benjamin Netanyahu’s winning electoral coalition included “outright racist, anti-Arab Jewish extremists once deemed completely outside the norms and boundaries of Israeli politics.” He quoted Israeli journalist Amos Harel’s explanation that the right-wing victory was partly inspired by “hatred of Arabs and the desire to keep them out of positions of power.” The New York Times’s own post-election reports were mostly less explicit, continuing the paper’s long tradition of downplaying Israel’s violent, messianic racists.
Friedman’s apostasy is particularly important because he has spent decades protecting Israel’s image. In the late 1980s, when the first Palestinian intifada broke out and prompted a harsh Israeli crackdown, he promoted the often-repeated line: “Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood.” His intention was clear; Israeli repression could no longer be hidden — especially after Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered his soldiers to “break the arms and legs” of Palestinian resisters. Israel’s image was being tarnished. But living among “dangerous neighbors” meant you might — regrettably — have to use harsh methods.
In today’s column, Friedman to his credit also did some of his own reporting about the rising danger to Palestinians who are citizens of Israel inside its 1967 borders. He noted that such Palestinians are 21 percent of Israel’s population, and he quoted Moshe Halbertal, a Jewish philosopher at Hebrew University, who warned that:
What we are seeing is a shift in the hawkish right from a political identity built on focusing on the ‘enemy outside’ — the Palestinians — to the ‘enemy inside’ — Israeli Arabs.
Here’s another area where Times reporters could take their cue from Friedman. The paper has historically ignored Palestinian citizens of Israel. So Ayman Odeh, one of the community’s most influential leaders, an impressive man who supports nonviolent resistance and tells everyone his hero is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, has never been profiled. And the Times also missed the news that Israel’s summer Olympics team last year — a 90-member delegation — did not include a single Palestinian.
Why did Friedman write this column? Maybe he hopes he can influence Netanyahu to try and form a coalition that excludes the extreme racists? But Friedman surely knows that the far right-wing alliance is Netanyahu’s best chance to disrupt the corruption cases against him and keep him out of prison.
Over the past few years, we’ve noticed that Friedman’s new strategy was simply to hide when bad news from Israel broke. In 2020, for instance, he wrote nohing while the Trump administration and a previous Netanyahu government were on the verge of annexing large stretches of the Palestinian West Bank, a move that would have also damaged Israel’s image in the US.
But this week’s election was too significant and dangerous for him to hide from. His closing paragraph is worth repeating:
I have reported from Israel for this newspaper for nearly 40 years, often traveling around with my dear friend Nahum Barnea, one of the most respected, sober, balanced, careful journalists in the country. To hear him say to me minutes ago on the phone that ‘we have a different kind of Israel now’ tells me we are truly entering a dark tunnel.
Editor’s Note: The New York Times has never profiled Ayman Odeh but did run an Op-Ed by him in September 2019.