Thomas Friedman’s Bizarre Moral Universe: Defending Israel in The NY Times

Thomas Friedman in The New York Times argues for approval of the Iran nuclear deal, and on the way to this conclusion he hauls readers through a morass of false narratives and murky ethics, all of them invoked on behalf of Israel.

The column, however, does more than reveal the contortions of Israeli propaganda. It also points up a defect in the Times op-ed pages: The section allows writers to assert almost any claim without having to supply evidence to the readers, and although the newspaper says that it fact-checks even its editors, plenty of misinformation appears in the op-ed pages.

Thus we have Friedman’s latest, “If I Were an Israeli Looking at the Iran Deal,” which lays out a series of bald statements about Iran, Mideast history and the Israeli military that point to one overriding premise: Israel is a lonely moral force in the midst of lunatic regimes.

Friedman asserts, among other things, that Iran “regularly cheated” in order to expand its nuclear capability and aided Lebanon in “an unprovoked war” against Israel in 2006. Israel, however, “tries to avoid hitting civilian targets,” follows “Western mores” and pursues “war without mercy” only “when it has to.”

We are told, in other words, that Iran is an existential threat to Israel, bent on its destruction. Oddly, just as Friedman’s column was appearing in the Times, the newspaper also published a rebuttal to his claim in a story titled “Reporting From Iran Jewish Paper Sees No Plot to Destroy Israel.”

Here we learn that many Iranians support a two-state solution in Palestine-Israel and that Jewish Iranians are “basically well-protected second-class citizens—a broadly prosperous, largely middle-class community whose members have no hesitation about walking down the streets of Tehran wearing yarmulkes.”

If readers took the time to check out some of Friedman’s specific claims, they would find that the “unprovoked war” of 2006 was something else again. Israel was actually planning to attack Lebanon and seized on one incident (among many skirmishes on both sides) to unleash its arsenal on the country.

They would discover that Iran has not “regularly cheated its way” in its nuclear program. Instead, as investigative journalist Gareth Porter notes, “The evidence adduced to prove that Iran secretly worked on nuclear weapons represents an even more serious falsification of intelligence than we saw in the run-up to the war in Iraq.”

As for Friedman’s claim that the “Israeli army tries to avoid hitting civilian targets,” many readers already know that rights groups have cast grave doubts on this particular bit of propaganda. Most recently, we have heard from Breaking the Silence and Amnesty International, as both groups have exposed the criminal policies and actions that left so many civilians dead last summer in Gaza.

This sloppy approach to the facts is appalling, but even worse in this particular piece is the moral quagmire he creates in justifying Israel’s war crimes. Israel is forced to kill civilians, he says, because it faces enemies that stop at nothing. Therefore, Israel will “play by local rules” because “for all its Western mores it will not be out-crazied.”

Friedman would have it both ways: Israel is a moral society and Israel is the toughest, meanest guy on the block. If Hezbollah or Hamas fire rockets, he writes, Israel “will not be deterred by the threat of civilian Arab casualties.” The threat that concerns him here is the damage to Israel’s reputation, not the deaths of innocent Arabs.

He finds Iran’s alleged nuclear cheating particularly egregious because the country had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This observation, however, does not prevent him from threatening Iran with Israel’s nukes: “[Israel] not only possesses 100 to 200 nuclear weapons,” he writes, “it can deliver them to Iran by plane, submarine and long-range rocket.”

Israel, on the other hand, has never signed the NPT and has never allowed inspectors into its nuclear plant, but this is no matter to Friedman. Iran, which has signed the treaty and allows inspections of its facilities, finds this state of affairs used against it in his bizarre moral universe.

Friedman presents Iran as one of the “crazies” that force Israel to break from its “Western mores,” but he can maintain this stance only by ignoring a little-discussed fact: Iran has forbidden the production and use of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical warfare and nuclear arms.

Even when Iraq attacked Iranians with poison gas during the eight-year war, Iran refused to retaliate in kind. Two supreme leaders have pronounced a fatwa against such weapons, including nuclear arms, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Iran’s nuclear program, they declared, can only be pursued for peaceful purposes, and under the Iranian system, their word is the law of the land.

No wonder we hear not a word of this from Friedman (or the Times): Iran’s fatwa contrasts starkly with the Israeli stance on its own nuclear program.

In Friedman’s piece, facts that would expose his fraudulent narratives are excluded, in spite of the newspaper’s claim to fact-check even opinion pieces and editorials. Readers are denied even the minimal links that appear in most news stories.

Friedman’s columns appear twice a week in the Times. He has won awards for reporting and commentary, and he is a member of the Pulitzer Prize board. Such is the state of mainstream American journalism today.

Barbara Erickson

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Somebody Needs to Tell The NY Times: Israel Has The Bomb

The New York Times has had plenty to say about Iran and nuclear ambitions recently—in op-eds, editorials and news stories; in reports on negotiating sessions and in articles about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coming speech to Congress, at which he will raise the alarm about Iran’s ability to produce a bomb.

In all these venues—opinion pieces and news accounts—one element of this story is taken for granted: A nuclear proficient Iran would be a threat and cannot be allowed. As Israeli politician Isaac Herzog wrote in a Times op-ed published this weekend, “If [Iran] goes nuclear, the Middle East will go nuclear, putting world peace itself in jeopardy.”

Yet, in spite of all the words devoted to this issue, a major piece of information is missing: The Middle East has already gone nuclear. Israel has had the bomb since 1967 and is counted as the world’s sixth nuclear state, with a stockpile of weaponry possibly equal to that of France and the United Kingdom.

As Netanyahu warns against nuclear research in Iran and the Times editorial board insists that Iran allow “even more aggressive inspections” by the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is no mention of the fact that Israel has refused to allow any inspections of its advanced nuclear program and refuses even to confirm that it exists.

There is no compelling reason to prevent the Times from writing about Israel’s nukes. The newspaper has already published at least one opinion piece urging more openness on the issue; similar commentary has appeared in other publications, such as The New Yorker; and academic groups have openly issued assessments of Israel’s program.

Israeli scholar Avner Cohen has published two books on the subject (the second is titled The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb). Seymour Hersh, a former member of the Times’ own staff, has written one (The Samson Option), and Israeli journalist Ari Shavit dedicated an entire chapter in his book, My Promised Land, to the creation of Israel’s nuclear facility. Shavit speaks with pride of this accomplishment and notes that his chapter won the approval of Israeli censors.

The Federation of American Scientists states that “the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons is a ‘public secret’ by now due to the declassification of large numbers of formerly highly classified US government documents which show that the United States by 1975 was convinced that Israel had nuclear weapons.”

It is only left to determine just how many nuclear weapons Israel possesses and how it is capable of delivering them. The estimates vary from 80 (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) to 300 weapons, which can be launched by land, air and sea.

In 2009 Israel and its nukes made the news when the general conference of the IAEA called on Israel to open its facilities to inspection. The Israeli delegate to the conference rejected the request, saying, “Israel will not cooperate in any matter with this resolution.”

In the face of all this, the Times recently published a lead editorial concerning “the protracted nuclear threat from Iran” and how best to contain it. The piece noted that “Iran’s major nuclear installations are already monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency and watched by the United States.”

But, the editorial insisted, this is not enough. Iran must also ratify the IAEA’s “additional protocol” in order to “ensure materials are not diverted to a covert nuclear weapons program.”

A covert nuclear program is precisely what Israel has had since the 1950s, but the Times has nothing to say about it. Moreover, while Israel has refused to sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty or allow inspections of its program, Iran has done both. It is a signatory to the treaty and allows IAEA visits to its facilities.

Here is Israeli exceptionalism at its irrational worst. The Times has no problem pointing the finger at Iran, which has signed the treaty and allowed inspections, but it shields Israel, which has done neither and is already capable of launching nuclear weapons against its neighbors in the Middle East.

If it chose to report this issue fully, the Times could rely on expert analysis and testimony as evidence, and it could point to the precedence of publications which have “outed” the program in their writings. The information is readily available, but the newspaper prefers to say nothing.

At the least, the Times could say that Israel is “widely believed” to possess nuclear weapons, but it avoids even this construct. As long as Israel refuses to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal in public, The New York Times remains silent as well.

Readers are entitled to a fully informed treatment of the current debate over Iran and nuclear arms in the Middle East, but there is no sign that this will happen anytime soon. The newspaper places its obligations to journalism behind its loyalty to Israel, and readers are the losers in this game—once again.

Barbara Erickson

As Children Die in Gaza, The NY Times Spotlights Israeli Fears

The New York Times informs us this week that Israelis near the Lebanese border fear the presence of Hezbollah tunnels near their homes. In a thousand word story, Isabel Kershner writes of mysterious noises at night, “palpable” fears of an across-border attack and the damage of such rumors to local tourism.

The article is a follow-up to an earlier front page report on the death of two Israeli soldiers in a Hezbollah assault, and it is a companion piece to a Times story this summer about Hamas tunnels from Gaza. It confirms once again the Israeli-centric bias of the newspaper’s reporting from the Middle East.

Both stories focus on the unsubstantiated fears of Israelis. Hamas fighters used the tunnels solely for troop engagements with Israeli forces during this summer’s conflict; they never emerged from underground to attack kindergartens or invade kibbutzim, as some Israelis fantasized. The Hezbollah tunnels remain nothing but rumors so far. No one had found one by the time the Times story went to press.

Moreover, the original Hezbollah attack story makes much of the two Israeli soldiers’ deaths—in the headline and in an above-the-fold photo—and mentions only well into the story one additional detail: that a Spanish member of a United Nations force also died during the clash, apparently from Israeli fire (although the Times fails to say this).

Last week, when Israel killed five Hezbollah soldiers (at least one of them high ranking) and one Iranian general in the Golan, the news appeared on page 4. In that story and subsequent articles, we learn the names of only two of the victims.

Now, with Israelis as victims, the Times reports their names and gives the story page 1 treatment, as well as a next day follow-up with a photo of grieving relatives, news of the soldiers’ funerals and speculation about tunnels underfoot.

We’ve seen several prominent stories about Israeli grieving and fears this month. After Jews died in a terrorist attack in Paris, the Times made much of a tenuous Israeli connection. In three separate articles the paper reported that Israelis linked the attacks “to their own struggles,” that four Parisian Jews were buried in Israel (this with a front page photo) and that French Jews find a “sociable landing spot” in the Israeli city of Netanya.

Meanwhile, children were dying in Gaza, and the Times barely noticed. The paper ran one page 3 story about the suffering caused by a winter storm, including the death of a 4-month-old girl.

Two days later, after two more infants and a young fisherman also succumbed to the cold, the Times published a brief, 300-word story online that never made it into print. A week earlier two other Gaza children died when a fire broke out during an electrical blackout. This news apparently found no mention anywhere in the Times.

As Gaza residents continue to suffer from the Israeli siege, the newspaper prefers to highlight the nightmare fantasies of nervous Israelis rather than examine Israeli culpability in Palestinian suffering. In the end, the Times is saying, it is Israeli deaths, Israeli fears and Israeli grief that are above all worth reporting.

Barbara Erickson