The Geopolitics of the Normalization Agreements

10 Mar

Listen Closely to the Israeli Discourse in an American Liberal Idiom: Geopolitical Dreams, Ethical Nightmares

Thomas Friedman is both an echo of the liberal establishment and a media force to be reckoned with when it comes to post-cold war, post-Trump America. Known for championing the excesses of modernity by conceiving of technology, markets, capital flows, permissive social norms, and science-based truth and rationality as alone capable of offering promises of a good life for everyone. Friedman’s tone has always been arrogant and condescending. He is never shy about offering the rich and powerful the benefit of his technocratic wisdom. When it comes to foreign policy especially in the Middle East, and most particularly where Israel is involved, Friedman seeks to mount a guru’s pedestal so as to position himself above the fray, yet he never departs from the party line that unconditionally affirms Israel while being blind to Palestinian grievances and hostile to Palestinian resistance and global solidarity initiatives. In other words, Friedman is to liberal Zionism, what Sheldon Adelson was to militant Zionism as epitomized by the Netanyahu leadership, but whose stance is endorsed by the spectrum of right-wing political parties in Israel that dominate the scene when it comes to victimizing the Palestinian people. 

Yet even judging by the low standards that Friedman has set for himself over the years, his most recent NY Times opinion piece was as grotesque as informed commentary on the Middle East can become, especially if read carefully, and with a critical eye. Published as an opinion piece on March 2nd with a title that is as foolishly flippant as the text that follows is pernicious: “Jumping Jehoshaphat: Have You Seen How Many Israelis Just Visited the U.A.E.” As if Israeli shopping trips to Dubai or Abu Dubai are political signposts indicating that the region has started to overlook the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, and get on with the more important work of servicing consumers and tourists. If a spike in U.A.E. shopping is one sign, the ICC decision of February 5th to proceed further with investigate well-evidenced allegations of Israeli criminality in Occupied Palestine points in quite a different direction. It seems revealing that this latter development does not warrant even a nod of recognition in Friedman’s warped imagination that heeds market signals far more than international law grievances, especially if put forth by adversaries of the U.S. or Israel.

It is tempting to deal comprehensively with the several perversions of policy encountered in the course of a journalistic piece of less than 1,000 words, but I will mention only those that seem most outrageous from the perspective of law, morality, and transparency. The piece can be read as above all a promotional boost for the normalization agreements reached in the last weeks of the Trump presidency, a triumph of Washington bullying governments. It not only gave Israel a big political victory but helped show the folks back home that Trump’s style of diplomacy succeeded where his more highminded predecessors had failed. Despite being a strident critic of Trump in conformity with his liberal persona, Friedman has this to say about the normalization agreements, which he further blesses by adopting the self-glorifying name of the Abraham Accords bestowed by supporters: “I believed from the start that the opening between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan—forged by Jared Kushner and Donald Trump could be game-changing.” Not a word about the arms deals and diplomatic payoffs made to twist the arms of the Arab governments, and not even a notation that this normalization ploy was the Trumpist culmination of carrying pro-Israeli partisanship to its extremes, which meant proceeding as if the Palestinians are to be seen nor heard as little as possible, and certainly never acknowledged.

Friedman goes on to say that it is too soon to know whether this good news will go further, recalling his disappointment that the once seemingly hopeful bonding of Israel with Lebanese Christians in the early 1980s turned out to be a ‘shotgun wedding and divorce.’ This meant that this promise an Arab-Israeli rapprochement was nothing more than a disillusioning house of cards that failed to produce lasting results of achieving peaceful relations with Arab countries without the inconvenience of doing something for the Palestinians. Again, it is the silences that are the most revealing aspect of Friedman’s lament. There is not a word in the column that the peak moment of bonding between Israelis and Lebanese Christians came during the Lebanon War of 1982, reaching its dramatic climax when Israel’s IDF collaborated with the Maronite militias in overseeing the civilian massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. To lament the breakdown of this ill-fated marriage of convenience, without noting one of the starkest mass atrocities of the past half century in the region, is a typical embodiment of Friedman’s hypocritical morality and opportunistic geopolitics. Friedman does not stop there. He adds a gratuitous insult directed at Hezbollah coupled with a passing slur directed at Iran because it supports Hezbollah, and thus has the temerity to challenge Israeli/Saudi/U.S. phantasies.

Bad as is this foray into the tragic realities of Lebanese politics, worse is to come. Friedman regards the real payoff of the Trump normalization process is situated in the future. He conjectures that a parallel agreement with Saudi Arabia would be the crown jewel of the process, opining that such “..normalization would be huge for both Israel-Arab and Jewish-Muslim relations.” At the same time, Friedman reluctantly recognizes that the murder of Kamal Khashoggi is seen by some as an awkward impediment to reach this proclaimed goal. Here is how Friedman frames the grisly event: “The CIA-reported decision to have Saudi democracy advocate Jamal Khashoggi, who a long-time U.S. resident, killed and dismembered was utterly demented—an incomprehensible response to a peaceful critic who no threat to the kingdom.”

The language, as always with Friedman is revealing in ways that should make this journalist of post-colonial imperialism squirm. Why the word ‘demented,’ meaning bizarre action without rational justification, when the act in question was a wonton criminal abuse of power, accentuated by the misuse of diplomatic facilities to carry out an act of aggravated state terror—the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Further that the killing Khashoggi was ‘incomprehensible’ because it served no state purpose since there was ‘no threat to the kingdom.’ Cynical and hypocritical to the core: Hezbollah is demeaned for no reason, while a much deserved condemnation of MBS is sidestepped by Friedman’s rather implausible claim of being mystified by what he portrays as the senseless murder of Khashoggi a harmless critic of Mohamed bin Salmon’s Saudi imperium. Having taken note of the bloody deed, Friedman makes his priorities unmistakable by giving a green light to the nefarious business of geopolitics. Friedman always ready to provide unsolicited advice, without pausing for a breath of fresh air, observe that while “[t]he Biden team is still sorting out how it will relate to MBS” it remains right “to insist that that America will continue to deal with Saudi Arabia in general as an ally.”

Without the slightest show of moral inhibition, Friedman cuts to the chase, affirming the triangular relations between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States as a constructive partnership in the region. He celebratory mood is expressed as follows: “If the Abraham Accords do thrive and broaden to include normalization between Israeli and Saudi Arabia, we are talking about one on the most significant realignments in modern Middle Eastern history, which for many decades was largely shaped by Great Power interventions and Arab-Israeli dynamics. Not anymore.” Again, this realignment is presupposed to be a constructive development without any indications of qualifications either by reference to the dangers of inclining the region even more toward a military confrontation with Iran or by acting as if the daily Palestinian ordeal was not worth addressing in the course of assessing such a diplomatic misadventure.

Friedman does go on to contend implausibly that in such an altered diplomatic environment, Israel might become more amenable to a two-state solution without even pausing to point out that even under pressure, Israel never wanted to co-exist with a viable Palestinian state, and now with the rightward drift of its internal politics and its guaranty of continued unconditional support in Washington, it no longer needs to pretend. The accelerating growth of Israeli settlements in defiance of the UN, the deferred pledges of substantial annexation of the West Bank, and the evident resolve by Israel to uphold its claim to govern Jerusalem as a unified whole, capital for Israel alone, makes any resurrection of two-state diplomacy an even crueler bad joke than Oslo told to the world while Palestinian aspirations are drenched in blood and the Palestinian people faced with an indefinite prospect of suffering under an apartheid Israeli regime.

The fact that the Biden presidency wasted no time resurrecting the two-state corpse is the clearest possible demonstration of the moral and political bankruptcy of U.S. policy with respect to the Palestinian struggle to achieve basic rights after many decades of denial. Unlike the Trump years, Friedman can exult in the reality that he is no longer out of step with those who preside over policymaking in the White House when it comes to the Middle East. And now post-Trump I am quite sure Friedman would not urge the Biden/Blinken to take back any of the unlawful gifts bestowed on Israel during the four Trump/Kushner years, including the Syrian Golan Height, the UN-defying move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the ‘legalization’ of the settlements along with de facto annexation of significant territory in occupied Palestine.   

13 Responses to “The Geopolitics of the Normalization Agreements”

  1. Sean Breathnach March 10, 2021 at 2:52 pm #

    I hope that the Palestinians don’t fall into the trap of having more useless peace talks brokered by the US. Anyone who talks of a two-state solution, either is not aware of the facts on the ground or is playing the Palestinians & the international community for fools. As for Friedman, I’m in complete agreement with Professor Falk’s analysis.

  2. Beau Oolayforos March 10, 2021 at 6:43 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    As always, thank you very much. Many of us could see that these “normalization” deals really stink, but we appreciate your putting it all in articulate perspective. It is, unfortunately, a dream come true for right-wing Israelis: the know-nothing con men Trump and Kushner make the deals, and then the spineless fools Biden & Blinken haven’t the guts to change anything. Scribblers like Friedman are their ‘poets laureate’.

    • Richard Falk March 10, 2021 at 9:59 pm #

      Well-said. Thanks.

      • Rabbi Ira Youdovin March 15, 2021 at 9:39 pm #

        Prof. Falk’s intensely personal attack on Tom Friedman is all too typical of a disturbing tendency in the United States and elsewhere; people no longer just criticize those whose views differ from their own. They demonize them. Their opinions aren’t merely wrong. They’re “grotesque perversions”. They pander to the rich, famous and powerful. They speak from neither their heart nor their head.; but rather, they cynically craft their words to create an image they need to “mount the guru’s pedestal” and win currency as public intellectuals. All of this and more is in Prof. Falk’s post.

        Forensics aside, Prof. Falk is dead wrong about Tom Friedman’s views on Israel and the Palestinians. Demonstrably wrong. He repeatedly condemns the Occupation. He unambiguously and unabashedly endorses the Palestinians’ right to pursue their legitimate aspirations, including independence in an independent Palestinian state. But don’t take my word for it. I invite Sean Breathnach, Beau Oolayforos or anyone else who’s interested to Google “Thomas Friedman+Israel Palestine” (or access his columns on the New York Times website) and read what Friedman has been writing all these years. (Spoiler alert: To paraphrase Chico in an old Marx Brothers movie: “Will you believe what Richard Falk is telling you or what you’re reading with your lying eyes?!)

        Prof. Falk hurls maximum vehemence at Friedman not only because he’s a widely respected author with three Pulitzer Prizes and a wallfull of honorary degrees, but because he’s a liberal Zionist. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, a liberal Zionist is committed to keeping Israel safe and secure, while also working to ensure that its leaders are sensitive to the Palestinians’ legitimate needs and aspirations. In stark contradistinction, Prof. Falk has determined that Israel must go. I won’t speculate on whether he’s motivated by an a priori objection to the very concept of a Jewish state, or by a (mistaken!) calculation that Israel’s existence blocks the Palestinians’ pathway to a better future. But either way, he wants to make Israel disappear.

        As this is the core principle informing his approach, anybody committed to maintaining Israel’s viability is the enemy. And if that person is a Jew and a Zionist his/her existence discredits Prof. Falk’s description of a Zionist as “someone who doesn’t feel Palestinian pain”. Like most of Prof. Falk’s opinions on Zionism, this one is wrong.

        It’s significant that Prof. Falk’s verbal explosion was ignited by Friedman’s column celebrating the Abrahamic Accords (in which United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for Israel suspending plans to annex thirty percent of the West Bank.) This must be a painful development for him as it highlights dramatic changes in the political landscape of the Middle East. Their Arab neighbors never gave the Palestinians anything more than lip service, using calls for pan-Arab unity against the Jewish invader as a tactic to distract the Arab Street from their own government-inflicted problems.

        After the Arab Spring, when this strategy was no longer viable, the Sunni governments began thinking about how improved relations with Israel (and the United States) might help them address their own problems. For the UAE, these were developing commercial and technological relations with Israel, and bringing Israel into the Sunni coalition defending against the irredentism of Shiite Iran. Prof. Falk sees this as American arm twisting. In fact, impetus for the Abrahamic Accords is driven by UAE-Bahrainian self-interest.

        The Middle East landscape is changing rapidly, and the Palestinians are being left behind. The shopworn tactic of complaining about and demanding revenge for the Nakba, painting Israel as a colonial intrusion, and blaming Israel, the United States and American Jews for their own failures to abandon terrorism, and being guided by mis-guided counsel to stand pat while the world grows tired of their inflexibility and ineptitude at statecraft.

        For the Palestinians, the train is leaving the station. Only they can determine whether they will be on it.

        Rabbi Ira Youdovin

      • Richard Falk March 16, 2021 at 12:45 am #

        My attack was personal only in the sense that TF consistently adopts a very personal, and in my reading,
        condescending tone. He endorses predatory and technocratic capitalism as engines of progress.

        My criticisms in the post that angers you were directed at the text of that particular opinion piece. I was bothered
        particularly by ‘the silences,’ including celebrating normalization agreements without mentioning their impacts
        on the Palestinian people, and overlooking the inducements provided by Washington in the form of weapons and
        good will. You are right that these Arab governments were acting on the basis of self-interest.

        The resurrection of the ‘two state solution’ given Israeli de facto annexation accentuated by Netanyahu’s pledge
        to legalize the settlement ‘outposts’ previously unlawful under Israeli law is either ill-informed or extremely cynical.

        Friedman’s cynicism and true beliefs are contained in his way of handling the Mohamed ben Salmon’s orchestrated
        murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the non-mention of the massacres in the Lebanonese refugee camps when the Israel/
        Maronite bonding was strongest. I wonder why you neglect such issues.

        By the way, I do not want to destroy Israel, but only to create a post-Zionist reality in which the two peoples
        can live together on the basis of equality and mutual respect, a scenario that Israel’s Basic Law of 2018 forecloses
        by opting for Jewish supremacy within Israel.

        The train you want the Palestinians to board is hurtling toward a collision with history.

      • Kata Fisher March 15, 2021 at 11:53 pm #

        Rabbi – the ethnic cleansing is not the choice of those who are ethnically cleansed – it’s the choice of the facilitators of the “train”. Don’t attack Professor Falk since he has nothing to do with – and was non of his doing the fascist aspirations of “two state solution”. Everyone that can’t twitch once will see the two state solution for what it is. Especially now when science and History DO NOT LIE. It’s absolutely incredible opportunity to talk about booming deceptions. I will respectfully decline – I don’t want to be a ethnically and virtually killed messengers. Instead? I will look at Covid virus be like a “invisible hitler” upon the world that is nothing short of being just accursed. Perhaps, nothing is debatable. There is truth and there is lie. The truth is truth. The lie is a lie. Let’s not forget who was the train of fascist Austria-Hungary. Was it economy? I know that Professor Falk is better then me sorting out drawing forces of fascism. Truly, the world is in bad shape – bad enough draw out another World Fashist and # W III. I know, I know – I, too, would like to say: “ Bla, bla, bla, … I can’t hear.”

  3. James Mark Hamilton March 17, 2021 at 7:55 pm #


    I have sent a couple of emails to you at your own address and haven”t heard from you. I am reading your book and enjoying it greatly. See if if you can check them our. Hope to hear from you soon.

    Take care, Mark


  4. Rabbi Ira Youdovin March 19, 2021 at 5:11 pm #


    Some brief notes on your response to my comments:

    Paragraph #2. Friedman’s piece on the Abrahamic Accords may have triggered your post, but you condemn in near-defamatory words his entire approach to everything. Let’s face it, you just don’t like Tom Friedman.

    Paragraph #2(b). You criticize Friedman for paying no attention to other issues, while, in fact, that is precisely your approach. How many times have you departed from your relentless condemnation of Israel to take note of Palestinian terrorism, cruelty to their own in Gaza or failure to unite for an effective diplomatic campaign for independence? Don’t waste time checking. The answer is zero. You really shouldn’t be throwing stones.

    Paragraph #4. Getting a perspective on MBS and Khashoggi is a problem for many. The Khashoggi murder must be condemned in the strongest possible terms and must be punished. MBS is reprehensible and brutal, but he’s also progressive on other issues. Egypt’s participation in the Sunni-Israeli alliance to block Iranian irredentism in the region is a significant factor in achieving regional stability. You regard it as an axis of evil against Iran. But you refuse to apply any values-based assessment of Iran’s adventurism and actually deny that Iran has hegemonic aspirations. I think the native Lebanese and others would disagree.

    Paragraph #5. You claim you don’t want to destroy Israel, but what you say and write says otherwise. A significant number of Palestinians are seeking a way in which two peoples can live together on the basis of equality and mutual respect. You’ve called them “collaborationists”. The horse you’re backing (or riding?) in this race is Hamas, which (mistakenly) asserts that killing Zionists is an Islamic obligation and calls for Israel’s annihilation. You have said these genocidal objectives are no more than “vague aspirations”. But they’re written into the Hamas Charter and remain even after the Charter’s much heralded revision several years ago.

    All of the above are verifiable, should anyone take the trouble to check the historical record. To paraphrase something Chicago said in an old Marx Brothers movie: “Will you believe what Prof. Falk is telling you or what you see with your lying eyes.”

    Rabbi Ira Youdovin

    • Richard Falk March 20, 2021 at 2:59 am #


      Having reread you comment, I am not sure about either your intentions or motivations.
      You attribute intentions to me that I do not recognize as mine and reject if that is what you find.
      It seems you believe that either I am trickster trying to deceive or not intelligent enough to understand the
      implications of what I am proposing.

      It is true that I have consistently, although not invariably, found Friedman’s style and views
      offensive and condescending, regardless of the theme, as well as often hypocritical and almost
      always self-serving.

      It is also true that I regard fusing the Zionist Project of Jewish supremacy with a state governing a multi-ethnic society
      is not morally tenable nor legally reconcilable with 21st century human right standards.To keep order such arrangements
      require apartheid structures (as several Israeli leaders have acknowledged, but only internally
      in Hebrew) to address the inevitable prospect of nationalist resistance in reaction to displacement and dispossession.

      I do not endorse the Hamas approach except to the extent that its views have been misrepresented by
      cherrypicking, and its violence does not take account of Israeli oppressive policies and practices. My own
      investigations convinced me that after winning the Gaza elections in 2006 Hamas leaders reached out to the US president and
      people like myself to find a political path to the future that avoided the kind of encounters that have
      taken place over the past 15 years. It has been apparently more useful for Israel, and possibly the U.S.,
      to confine Hamas to a ‘terrorist’ identity.

      Yes, the Palestinians have made mistakes and engaged in wrongful behavior, but the weight of wrongdoing
      is decisively on the Israeli side, and the Palestinians have been oppressed in their own national homeland.

      In my view liberal Zionists, although generally sincere, are deeply confused about what sort of changes
      are necessary to make peace and coexistence work, essentially resting on a genuine acceptance of ethnic equality.

      I think if you granted me good faith and just moderate intelligence our dialogue would be more productive.


      • Beau Oolayforos March 25, 2021 at 5:34 pm #

        I don’t mean to nit-pick, but when you refer to ’21st-century rights..’, it reminds me of reading about Spain under Islamic rule, where it is asserted that minorities, including Jews, were well, or at least indifferently treated.
        It’s hard to even imagine the brain-deadedness of the Bush White House. Of course they couldn’t engage with Hamas – too busy with Iraq, and chasing Bobby Fischer.

  5. Kata Fisher March 20, 2021 at 2:03 am #

    If it is true that Mr. Abbas is siting on a least 1 billion dollars-how can anyone be in peace with anyone. Instead – it is as it was during Vietnam to kill as many as it can be killed – the Vietnam aim of killing was primely to kill Americans / state sponsored rotations-or terror. Abas-Hammas seamed to be in the same sing-alongs. Let’s get some ding-dong sweets cookies and start throwing among them all in Holy Land and outside of it. We never have seen uncivil jokes in history of man-kind with our own eyes. Eye witnesses should be asked “Who all is on unreasonable welfare checks and where all is that coming from.” If is just all state sponsored terrorisam – you should really be shocked. I do not think that Arab governments are acting in self-interest. They may be acting in preserving of human civilization, all together. There have to be some truth involved – what do they or what we think they will accomplish with religious jokes in Holy Land that they are in? It certainly will not be good for any of those individuals and their offspring. No body will be able to pray them out and their family lines out of hell. There will be no forgiveness, unless they all cold-turkey stop doing the jokes that they are in.


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