This past Friday evening, I was given the opportunity to sit down with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman at his house in Bethesda (fortuitously located directly across the street from my own house. Every blogger should be so lucky!). The interview, which was conducted over the course of an hour, will be posted exclusively at The Debate Link for several weeks, before being printed in The Carleton Progressive. This the first part, covering the Israel/Lebanon conflict and its fall-out.
David Schraub: You've been covering the Middle East conflict for three decades now. How does the recent Lebanon conflict fit in with the overall narrative you've been observing?
Tom Friedman: It's rather depressing, because it's all back to the beginning. You know, I basically came into the Middle East story in High School, after the '67 war, and we were dealing with the "three no's" of the Khartoum Arab summit: No recognition, no peace--I forget what the third no was. Basically, it was still in the era of total Arab rejection of Israel. And that's where I came into the story as a high school student in 1967. And then when I was at Oxford in graduate school, Sadat visited Jerusalem and created this huge psychological breakthrough, and it was really the beginning of the peace process as we know it.... So, you could sort of say there was--a kind of up and down--but it had a positive slope to it, a trend line toward Arab/Israeli reconciliation...and the ring of hostility, of the no's, after 1967 around Israel seemed to be coming down.
Then beginning with the second Intifada, the collapse of the second Camp David peace process under President Clinton, everything began to slide backwards.... And the wider Arab/Israeli peace process seems pretty frozen.
So this is the context, then, that the Lebanon war of the summer of 2006 really took place in. And what is so disturbing about this war is that it was about everything and about nothing. It was about nothing in the sense that it was completely unprovoked. Israel was completely out of Lebanon. The UN had sanctified the Israeli/Lebanon border; said this is the official legal border stamped by the UN. So at one level, it was about nothing; there was no reason for this war (this whole bit about Shebaa Farms is non-sense), and if Hezbollah wanted to get back prisoners there were other ways to do it. But precisely because it was about nothing, it was about everything, in the sense that if the border didn't matter, it was about everything. It was about the whole idea of the Jewish state and after all, Nasrallah (the head of Hezbollah) literally said "we see ourselves and our objective as liberating Palestine--liberating Jerusalem."
So as I watched all this, my basic reaction was, "Wasn't this where I came in?" We're back to the "three no's." And so that's really what I felt about it.
DS: There’s been talk actually, coming out of the Lebanese Prime Minister's office, that they might be willing to sign a Peace Treaty with Israel. Do you think that might go anywhere?
TF: Hard to know. You know, we've seen breakthroughs come from the depths of depression. After all, the 1973 war, which ended in an Israeli military victory but an emotional stalemate--much like this war, you could say--opened the way for the disengagement agreements, and ultimately the Anwar Sadat visit to Jerusalem. Do I think that will happen in the case of Lebanon? Doubtful, because Lebanon is too fragmented inside.... So I'm dubious.
DS: Okay, so let's look at it from the Israeli side. There are a lot of people who said that Israel just snapped, that they just lost their temper and they over-reacted. Is that a fair assessment?
TF: No, no, I think it was a very hard call from Israel's side. You had a new Prime Minister and a new Defense Minister who clearly thought they were being tested--there was that dimension.... And when you're faced, first of all, with a war you're totally unprepared for--nobody saw this coming the day before, nobody had thought about it really--and suddenly you're in a war that seems to be about everything and nothing, I think it was very hard for Israel to get its bearings on how to proceed. At the same time, you're dealing with an enemy that has embedded itself in the civilian population (on the Lebanese side). Hezbollah has no bases to retaliate against--in the conventional military sense--and so Israel almost by definition couldn't retaliate against Hezbollah without hitting civilian targets. And that's tragic. It's tragic for me--I hate to see Lebanon be destroyed--but at the same time, it was the only way from the Israeli point of view to exact a price on Hezbollah's constituency that ultimately Israeli hoped--and I don't think this was a crazy thing--would deter Hezbollah the next time, with people saying "wait a minute, I don't want to go through this again."
So, I don't think Israel "snapped," I don't think it behaved in a particularly irrational manner. It was brutal, but it was an ugly war, and one that Israel didn't invite.
DS: So how does Hezbollah come out of this? Do they come out stronger?
TF: Well as we sit here today--and I'm glad I'm vacation right now so I don't have to write a column this week--I think this was a devastating defeat for Hezbollah. Wars are fought for political ends. They aren't fought for pride; they aren't fought for how many people will put your poster up or how many times your face will appear on al-Jazeera. Wars are fought for political ends. Well let's look at the two political ends of this war. It appears as we sit here today, that we're going to get a French-led, European peacekeeping force in South Lebanon, that will escort the Lebanese army down to the border and will serve there as a permanent peacekeeping force. That's a huge achievement for Israel... This is a huge strategic loss for Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Being able to touch Israel, and provoke a war like this, was a real strategic advantage for them. They could turn it on and off anytime they wanted. They can't do that anymore....
That's number one. Number two, Hezbollah was given these rockets by Iran, one assumes, as a deterrent, so if anyone--if Israel--ever struck Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran could hit back through south Lebanon. First of all, now it's fired off a lot of these rockets, got a lot of them destroyed, and while they of course they can be resupplied.... Israel will study this whole war, and learn the lessons of it. So, militarily Hezbollah is weaker. And politically speaking, inside Lebanon, many Lebanese are very angry about this war. They're sitting back and saying, especially in their own community--and you may not hear that in the press here, but believe it's going on--"What is this war about? What did this war achieve? Pride? But I lost my house. My factory. The bridge that got me to work. What was this all about? Who did we do this for? A third country?"
Now just those questions alone make it much harder for Nasrallah to act in the future. So, I would say on every count this was a huge strategic defeat for Hezbollah.
DS: So you think that the Lebanese people are apportioning a significant amount of the blame for the destruction to Hezbollah?
TF: Yes. You always have to look, David, not at the morning after, but the morning after the morning after. Oh, the morning after, Nasrallah is a hero, everyone applauds, you know. The morning after the morning after, when people come home and survey the damage, that's a whole 'nother question. And we're now in the morning after the morning after. And that goes on for a long time.
DS: I want to talk a little bit about anti-Semitism stemming out of this conflict. Hugo Chavez just today said that he thought what Israel was doing "the same as" or "perhaps worse" than Hitler--that's a direct quote. What do you think the link between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric is--especially coming from the left? People are talking about how that's rising—do you think that's scare-mongering, do you think it's a real phenomena, and how does one talk against Israel without being anti-Semitic?
TF: I think that's an important question. I haven't studied everything that's been said or everything people are saying--I'm just so used to it. I might be too blase about it, because when you have your own column, that you can say whatever you want, you tend not be quite as focused on what other people are saying....
Hugo Chavez is a blithering idiot who--if the price of oil wasn't $70 as it is today--no one would be listening to him. He'd be just another tin pot dictator, albeit an elected one, but none the less. But idiots, what they say in a flat world where it gets around and gets repeated matters, so I guess we have to listen to them. Yeah, I think there is a certain degree of anti-Semitism on the left, always was, always will be. You could see it in the reaction to this war--Israel and Hezbollah were kind of put on the same plane, even though Hezbollah started the war, even though Hezbollah has been complicit in the suicide bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, of the Marine Barracks in Beirut, of the US embassy annex is Beirut. We're not talking about the poor and crippled newsboys here. And I think that very often that gets lost in all of this.
DS: And so how should liberals, say, on college campuses--because I think that's a place where I think a lot people say there is a hotbed of leftwing anti-Semitism--how does the liberal on a college campus respond to this?
TF: Well, I think...[y]ou have to marshal the facts. You have to debate. And you have to engage people. And you have to get in their face. And you have to challenge people. When you see British Universities discussing a boycott of Israeli universities, because of the occupation, you say, "Wait a minute." Are they boycotting Syrian universities? I mean Syria stands accused--by the United Nations--of complicity in the murdering of the President next door: Rafik Hariri. And certainly pro-Syria forces stand accused in Lebanon of murdering the two most liberal Arab journalists and progressive Arab journalists in the world today Gibran Tueni, and Samir Kassir, who led the democracy movement in Lebanon....
And so the point is, you can't argue from emotion. You have to argue from facts. And one can simply point out those kind of contradictions. Because there is only one way to explain those contradictions, sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes, and that’s anti-Semitism....
DS: Jews are one of the most loyal Democratic bases. Do you think there is any threat to that? A lot of conservative columnists have been trying to pitch Joe Lieberman's loss in the Democratic primary as a repudiation of the Jewish base--I don't think that's the case--but do you see any risk of Jews breaking some of that Democratic loyalty?
TF: Well I think that Jews have been moving from left of center to right of center--there is an element that has been moving for the last twenty years--surely since Ronald Reagan. So there has always been that element. And George Bush has been a very--ostensibly--pro-Israel President. I suppose there is an element that definitely responds to that. But I don't know, when I look at the Democratic candidates out there right now, whether it is Kerry, or Hillary Clinton, or Joe Biden, I don't see anyone hostile to Israel at all. And I don't just mean in a cliched sense.
Talking about the Democratic Party and talking about "the left" are two different things, as you know. In terms of the Democratic Party, I still think it's a very hospitable place for Jews.
Tom Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. He is the author of several prominent books, including From Beirut to Jerusalem, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, and The World is Flat.
Continued in Part II....