Friday, July 2, 2010

Tom Friedman definitely did not read my last response to him

Updated below

As a general rule I try to avoid Tom Friedman, especially when he writes about Palestinian politics. I vehemently criticized his last love affair with Appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad nearly a year ago and have actually been doing a rather impressive job avoiding his anecdotal, simplistic, and at times bizarrely out of touch columns but his last one, "The Real Palestinian Revolution" did me in. The article created a stir and made ripples across the internet, and like a shark to blood, I was drawn to another messy disaster orchestrated by Mr. Friedman.

Before I begin my criticism in full, I do want to actually say that I agree with what he explicitly advocates here: that Israel should get out and stay out of Palestinian cities in the West Bank. However, my niceties end there.

As my previous Friedman-themed post chronicled, Friedman paints an extraordinarily sunny picture of economic life in the West Bank, of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's ability to build democratic and accountable institutions in the West Bank, and of the feasibility of overcoming Israeli occupation via institution building.

He makes his same old mistakes, using one anecdote of minor successes in the Palestinian Stock Exchange to assert that Fayyad is single-handedly fighting corruption in the Palestinian Authority, building accountable government institutions, and upholding democracy in the West Bank, an assertion that is laughably rosy at best and downright ignorant at worst. Despite the stock market success, a new report warns that poverty in Area C in the West Bank is actually worse than that in the Gaza Strip.

Just as he did a year ago, Friedman also still fervently believes that as long as the PA builds the institutions of a Palestinian state, Israel will no longer be able to continue the occupation and settlement expansion that defines its relationship with the West Bank, as if the lack of Palestinian democracy was what really motivated Israel to gobble up more Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for Jewish settlers. I am absolutely sure that Friedman has not seriously considered the prospects that this institution building would have on Israel relinquishing the West Bank and evacuating settlements because even a quick thought experiment would lead one to conclude that far greater issues would continue to prevent Palestinian statehood. Friedman mentions the settlers only in passing, but doesn't once mention anything about the fact that settlements have continue to be expanded, reinforced, and retroactively legalized by the Israeli government even during the settlement "freeze." Friedman strangely seems to imply that the failure of Palestinian institution-building is what has precluded peace in the Holy Land.

True to any good Friedman column, there are a couple of bizarrely ignorant statements. First, Friedman remarks how at home Fayyad is meeting with his constituents without mentioning that Fayyad's entire position is based on authoritarian "emergency decrees" issued by Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas. Fayyad barely won his Legislative Council seat in the most recent Palestinian elections so it's safe to say his true "constituents" are far and few between. According to a recent Palestinian poll, only 31% of Palestinians view Fayyad's government as legitimate.

I think what many observers have found rather apparent is that Salam Fayyad's plans to build institutions are laudable, but his commitment to democracy, reconciliation with Hamas, and ending the PA's culture of corruption are unproven. Less than a month ago his government abruptly canceled planned municipal elections in the West Bank, the PA police still arrest, torture, and murder Hamas affiliates in the Wild West Bank, and Fayyad himself briefly shut down Al-Jazeera in the West Bank following a less than flattering story on Abbas' Fateh party. Friedman just seems so captivated by Fayyad's personality that he's unable to see that his tenure is actually harming Palestinian democracy and civil society. Friedman of course never mentions the canceling of elections or dubious "professionalism" of the security forces.

I do feel as if I'm mostly repeating my previous criticisms of Friedman, but I do want to highlight a spectacular article by Matt Duss about many Western government's and observer's "cult of personality" surrounding Arab and Palestinian leaders. I propose that we redefine Friedman's terrible Fayyadism term to this:

Fayyadism: The tendency of Western governments and journalists to fixate on individual Arab leaders, regardless of their many faults, rather than democratic policies and institutions when discussing best practices for state-building.

Update: I just saw that Nathan Brown has just published an extraordinary article at the Middle East Channel eviscerating Friedman's love affair with Salam Fayyad. It's definitely a must read.

Just a few quotes:

"Fayyad is not building a state. He's holding down the fort until the next crisis."

"Fayyad may be a good person, but finding a good person is not a policy. If he is making mild administrative and fiscal improvements in some areas, this cannot obscure the deeper problem that most Palestinian political institutions are actually in deep trouble and the most important ones are in a state of advanced decay."

"Palestinian democracy has died, and Fayyad could not operate the way he does (and would probably not be prime minister at all) if it were still alive."

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