Stephen M. Walt

Why Tom Friedman is a true friend of Israel

Why Tom Friedman is a true friend of Israel

Many of you probably saw Tom Friedman’s startling column in yesterday’s New York Times, where he attacked the Republican presidential candidates for pandering on the subject of Israel. He also informed his readers that all those standing ovations for Netanyahu in Congress were "bought and paid for by the Israel lobby," and he correctly noted that this blind and unconditional support for Israel was not really "pro-Israel" at all. Why? Because it was leading Israel away from a two-state solution and toward one of three disastrous options from Israel’s perspective: 1) apartheid, 2) ethnic cleansing, or 3) a binational democratic state which would eventually be dominated by the more numerous Palestinians.

Of course, his column has provoked the usual firestorm of denunciations (Phil Weiss has a quick rundown here). Hopefully Friedman will stick to his guns in the weeks and months ahead, because he is making arguments and advocating positions that are not only in America’s interest, but in Israel’s as well. The new Tom Friedman is a friend of Israel, not an enemy.

I would like to say a few words about a key theme running through some of the attacks on Friedman, most notably in an angry blog post by Elliott Abrams, who, by the way, is no friend of Israel. According to Abrams and others, the real reason that politicians pander and that Bibi got all those standing ovations in Congress is because the vast majority of Americans really love Israel, and therefore politicians are just giving the people what they want.

This is a common talking point among Israel’s defenders, most of whom intensely dislike or are at least uncomfortable with the claim that the lobby is the driving force behind the special relationship. The problem, as Jim Lobe points out in a recent post, is that’s its not true. To be sure, Americans have a much more favorable view of Israel than they do of the Palestinians (which is partly, though not entirely, due to differences in media coverage over time). But more importantly, there is abundant survey evidence showing that the American people favor the United States taking an "even-handed" position on the conflict and not favoring Israel. Lobe cites recent surveys by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and by the Brookings Institution that demonstrate this point (in the former, two-thirds of the respondents, including the GOP respondents, thought the United States should favor neither side). Even a 2005 survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that 78 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. government should favor neither Israel nor the Palestinians. For more support for this basic point, go here.

Indeed, the evidence shows clearly that many Americans would be perfectly willing to play hardball with Israel when it acts in ways that are not in the U.S.  national interest. For example, back in 2002, a Time/CNN poll found that 60 percent of Americans supported cutting off aid to Israel if it did not respond to Bush administration demands that it withdraw from areas it had occupied (during the Second intifada). One year later, a survey by the University of Maryland reported that over 60 percent of Americans would be willing to withhold aid to Israel if it resisted U.S. pressure to settle the conflict.

So when Congress passes various "pro-Israel" resolutions by amazingly lopsided votes, when its members rise as one to give Netanyahu standing ovation after standing ovation, and when U.S. presidents feel compelled to backtrack from efforts to advance a two-state solution before it is too late, it is not because the "American people" are demanding these responses.  As in many other cases (such as financial regulation, gun control, health care, or farm subsidies), politicians are ignoring the will of the people because a well-organized minority (comprised of some but not all American Jews and some but not all Christian evangelicals) is making its support conditional on support for its hardline views.

It’s the classic story of interest-group politics: If a small minority cares passionately about an issue and the rest of the population cares less, politicians will pander to the few and ignore the many, even as evidence accumulates that the resulting policy is wrongheaded. In this case, our present policy towards Israel is harmful to the long-term interests of both the United States and Israel. 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what Tom Friedman has figured out and has had the good sense and courage to point out to his many readers. Good for him, and good for the United States and Israel too.