Jonathan S. Tobin: Friedman still behind the times on Palestinian politics

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad helps out with the olive harvest in the village of Nabeh Salah, north of Ramallah, in October. (Flash 90)

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman made a rare concession to reality today when he wrote in his column that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was right to voice fears about the outcome of the Arab Spring earlier this year. In another astonishing divergence from his blame-Israel-at-all costs, he even noted that Israel’s refusal to cede more territory to the Palestinians at a time when they are fatally divided between Fatah and Hamas is “understandable” because, as Netanyahu noted in a speech to the Knesset yesterday, the Arab world is moving “backward” and turning into an “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave.” Giving up more land now is senseless: “We can’t know who will end up with any piece of territory we give up.”

But later on in the piece, Friedman reverted to form by saying the best way for Israel to avert the Arab drift to radicalism was to further empower moderates such as Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But as we noted here more than a week ago, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has already conceded that Fayyad will be dumped when Fatah and Hamas conclude their unity pact. The fact that Fayyad’s time has already come and gone is apparently beneath the notice of one of the fixtures on the Times op-ed page.

In fact, Netanyahu and his predecessors have done all they can to help Fayyad during the last several years, as has the United States. Despite the Palestinians’ clear violations of the Oslo Accords by going to the UN, Israel even handed over tax funds this week to Fayyad, as Friedman demanded. But the problem with a thesis that sees “Fayyadism” as the answer to Israel’s problems is that despite all the aid he has gotten, he still has no political traction with his own people.

Fayyad did much during his time in power at the PA to help his people and lay the groundwork for a rational economy. But, contrary to Friedman, his failure has nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with a Palestinian political culture that still prizes violence over good governance. Israel would like the moderates to succeed but, as in Egypt, where Islamists appear to have the advantage over liberals, Palestinians don’t seem to have much use for a policy of coexistence. The irrational hatred for Jews and Israel that is on the rise in Egypt may turn out to be an indication that genuine democracy there may not be in the offing. The same dynamic is in place for the Palestinians. After all, even during Fayyad’s term in office, the official Palestinian media has been a font of hate and delegitimization of Israel.

The overwhelming majority of Israelis would love to divest themselves of much of the West Bank. But they rightly refuse to repeat the experience of Gaza, where an Israeli withdrawal led to the creation of a Hamas state that serves as a safe haven for terrorism. Israel can’t create a two-state solution and peace on its own. When Palestinians are willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn, they will find, as was the case in 2000, 2001 and 2008 when Israel offered them statehood, that they can have independence and peace. Rather than blaming Israel for Fayyad’s failure, Friedman and his friends in the Obama administration ought to be advocating for a sea change in Palestinian politics that will make peace possible.

Just as Friedman is right to note that, despite criticism from Israelis, there was nothing Obama could have done to preserve Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, so, too, is it foolish to blame Israel for the fate of Fayyad or the growing strength of Hamas. Nothing Obama says or does will keep the Muslim Brotherhood​ out of power if they have the backing of the majority of Egyptians. He needs to recognize that Israel is just as powerless to change the minds of the Palestinians. The rise of Islamism is a function of the demons of the Arab world, not the fault of Israel or the West. (Commentary)