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In Israeli visit, Biden aspires to push peace talks forward

March 8, 2016 at 8:28 PM EDT
On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel to begin two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders currently mired in a deep and violent impasse. Biden also hopes to mend the relations between the Obama White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Judy Woodruff talks to Tom Friedman of the New York Times for his take on why the peace talks won’t work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and tonight begin a series of occasional conversations we’re calling The Long Divide.

Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel today, not far from the scene of one stabbing attack, where he began two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders mired in a deep and violent impasse.

Biden is also the latest top American official trying to repair relations between the Obama White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

We launch this series now with New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman.

Tom Friedman, welcome back to the program.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN, The New York Times: Great to be with you, Judy. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you wrote a column saying flatly that the peace process is dead. Why do you believe that?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Because it’s dead.

It’s actually been dead for a while. I just called it by its real name. It’s clear to me, Judy, that both sides have conspired. This was like “Murder on the Orient Express.” There were so many stab wounds in this body, hard to tell exactly which one was the fatal blow.

But you now have near approaching 500,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and depending on where you define the border. Remember, it took 50,000 Israeli soldiers and police to remove peacefully 8,000 settlers from Gaza.

So, imagine if you’re talking about, you know, 400,000 to 500,000. And on the Palestinian side, you have had some really bad developments. In the last Israeli-Palestinian war, Hamas fired a rocket that landed basically on the outskirts of Israel’s only international airport, basically, or major international airport, Lod.

And the U.S. FAA ordered for one day all American flights canceled. That was a message to all Israelis. Imagine if the Palestinians had the West Bank and could close their only airport.

And, also, Salam Fayyad or the — sorry — the — Abu Mazen, the Palestinian president, he released — he fired, basically, Salam Fayyad, the one Palestinian prime minister who said, we need to build our institutions, and if we do what the Zionists did and we build our state institutionally, getting a state will just be a formality.

He got fired.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying there are a few people trying to do the right thing, but they’re not being listened to? What’s the problem?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Yes. There are a lot of people trying to do the right — wrong thing, and they have been really empowered lately.

My criticism of Netanyahu is not that Israel should get out of the West Bank tomorrow. I get it. It’s a dangerous neighborhood. You know, I have always felt, to understand Israel, to write about Israel, you have to keep three thoughts in your head at the same time and their intention.

One is that Israel is an amazing place. It’s really built an amazing society in its short history. Second, Israel does some bad stuff in the West Bank. And, third, Israel lives in a really dangerous neighborhood. And you have got to keep all three of those in your head at the same time.

My critique of Netanyahu is this. Why would you make a bad situation worse by putting Jews in the middle of Palestinian areas in the West Bank, highly densely populated Palestinian areas, that if there were to be a deal, that would have to be ceded to a Palestinian state?

And where is the Israeli creativity? We see Israeli creativity in cyber, in technology, all of these things.


THOMAS FRIEDMAN: When was the last time you read a story about Netanyahu where you said, wow, now, that’s really interesting, there’s a really creative idea?

And on the Palestinian side, you have got a fractured Palestinian society, one in Gaza, one in the West Bank. So nobody can actually say yes for the Palestinians anymore in a unified way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the meantime, you have American politicians, many Republican prominent politicians running for president who are praising Benjamin Netanyahu, saying Barack — President Obama has been — has made all the wrong moves when it comes to Israel.

Is the U.S. a player or not? There’s a story today in The Wall Street Journal saying that the White House is trying to come up with a U.N. resolution maybe or some other gesture to get the peace process moving again.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, that story is a bit of an evergreen. Maybe it’s true now. But it’s always, we’re going to tell them. We’re just — we’re going to tell them we’re tired of this. We’re going to — and then it never happens, because a Democrat comes along, like Hillary Clinton, and says, geez, I wish you wouldn’t do that. Now that’s going to affect Jewish voters.

What’s going on in the campaign, that’s a gravity-free zone. It has nothing to do with the reality of the Middle East whatsoever. That is people looking for votes and funding. It has nothing to do with the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of the problem here, Tom, is due to the fact that the rest Middle East is virtually on fire, overshadowing the Palestinians and the Israelis?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: There’s no question.

If you’re sitting in Israel today, Israel has a real strategic dilemma. It has nonstate actors dressed as civilians, armed with rockets, nested among civilians on four out of five borders, Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.

I think we’re at a stage today where a lot of artificial states, states whose borders are primarily straight lines, they’re actually blowing up all over the world under the pressure of globalization, technology, climate. It’s different things in different places.

These states, Judy, they’re like caravan homes in a trailer park. They’re built on slabs of cement with no basement and no foundation. And these big global forces today, they’re like a tornado going through a trailer park. And a lot of them happen to be around Israel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If solutions are out there, and the people who have tried to float them just get knocked down, where is an answer going to come from? You’re saying it waits for the next president. Does it wait even longer? And where does it?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: You know, Netanyahu and Abbas can almost see each other from their offices.

The idea that they need John Kerry or any American secretary of state to come over, if they had the will, they would have the way. It’s got to start with them. I think the most constructive thing President Obama could do would — say, we tried. It’s over. There’s going to be a one-state solution.

That’s what would shock the system, not, here’s our plan. But then they just start making it about us. They start picking apart our plan. They say, it’s about you. It’s over. We really wish you well. Sorry it didn’t work out, because what happens otherwise is Netanyahu will always say, Kerry’s coming. Kerry — there’s a plan.

Or Abbas will say, don’t worry. The Americans are — no, no, nobody’s coming. It’s over. It’s yours. You own it. Now you live with it. And that’s the beginning of wisdom.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But can any American president really do that, given the political pressure in this country?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Obama has sort of been doing it for the last year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he hasn’t made that declaration.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: He hasn’t said that. But he’s basically — he’s basically told Kerry, you know, I don’t want you messing around there anymore.

So, it’s very hard, but, actually, it would be — you know, friends don’t let friends drive drunk, and we have been letting a lot of people drive drunk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Friedman, on that note, we thank you.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: A pleasure, Judy. Thank you.