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Tom’s Journal

May 6, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, Tom’s Journal, our occasional series with New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman. He has just returned from travels to the Middle East and Indonesia. And welcome home, Tom.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Good to be here, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Quickly, where did you go in the Middle East?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I went to Israel, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the West Bank, Jordan, Amman, Aqaba in Jordan as well, and then to Dubai in the Persian Gulf, and there from to Jakarta and then Tokyo and then home.

JIM LEHRER: Was there anything new or that was a revelation in this current situation that you picked up while you were in Israel?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: In Israel I think the thing that was new to me, Jim, was I felt like I was in a strange place. I’ve been there…

JIM LEHRER: A strange place?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I’ve been there so many times over the years. Strange because all the doors were closed. That’s my sense of Israel when I was there. Everyone had locked their door or been locked into their home.

You really can’t appreciate, or I couldn’t, until I went there the impact of 30, 40 suicide bombs on a small society over a period of three months. I went to a restaurant in Jerusalem, a neighborhood I’ve been to so many times, went to pull open the door and it was locked. I realized there’s a camera on me and the owner is checking me out. You press a button like you would in an apartment house. “Who are you here for? What’s your reservation? What’s your name?” When they’re sure you’re not carrying anything, the buzzer, you know, loosens the door and you go in.

So Israelis have basically sealed themselves in. At the same time I went to Bethlehem, a town I’ve visited hundreds of times over the years. And there, you know, all the shops have bluish green doors. They’re all shut. They were under curfew. They were sealed into their homes by Israelis. And I went into Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity. There was a huge tank there pointed at the Church of the Nativity. So you go to places you’ve been to so many times over the years, and you realize everything is shut in. One side has shut itself in out of fear of the other, and has at the same time shut the other side in out of fear of them.

JIM LEHRER: You have written, and many people have written and we’ve all known that until this latest flare-up, most Israelis and most Palestinians had a daily life and they got along together. On a personal level, did you feel fear and hatred that you’ve never seen before?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The thing that really struck me… someone said to me about the Israeli army… you know, the Israeli army is really an everyman’s army. It’s made up of a cross-section of the Israeli population. It’s a very pragmatic and very straightforward institution.

In the 1980s, the Israeli army was sent out to put down the Intifada that erupted in the 1980s. And it came back and reported to Israeli society, “folks, we have to get out of the West Bank. We have to end the occupation.” That was the birth of the Madrid peace process, and ultimately Oslo. The Israeli arm army has gone out again, Jim– this is what I was told — to the West Bank, and it’s reported back also to the Israeli republic. What it’s reported back — whether you agree with it or not– what it’s reported back is, “folks we’ve been up against a Trojan Horse. Yasser Arafat is a Trojan Horse. We have let him into our home and he is here to destroy us.” That’s the message basically that Israeli soldiers, I think, for the most part have brought back.

On the Palestinian side, you really find devastation. Walk through the old city of Jerusalem, again, a place I’ve walked through so many times. One shopkeeper literally pulled us into his shop and he said, you are the first person to cross this threshold in five days. Then he yanked us out into the streets and he counted nine shops around him that have been closed. We were leaving there about 7:00 in the evening walking back to our hotel, and one shopkeeper said to us wryly, “Please come into my shop and be my first and last customer of the day.” Economically they’ve been devastated.

I think in some ways the news really… the news reports haven’t fully captured this. You see Arafat coming out “V” for victory, and everyone is reporting that Arafat is more popular than ever. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it at all, because I think Palestinians now that this main siege of Ramallah is over have come out, they have surveyed the damage. They have taken the toll. They realize that they’ve paid a huge price for this. And for what? You know, the Intifada, I’ve always believed, made sense for about two weeks. It made sense when it first erupted as a signal to Israel and America that Palestinians would not accept a deal forced down their throats at Camp David that was less than 100%. But many Palestinians will tell you privately that after those two weeks, this thing never made sense. It never had a strategy. And the street was speaking. And when the street speaks, Jim, it never speaks clearly.

JIM LEHRER: Were they speaking because of those tanks on the street? How do they feel about the tanks, what the Israelis have done, and Sharon?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I think they’re deeply angry. They’re deeply angry at Israel, no question about it. They feel Sharon is someone who is out to destroy not just the Palestinian Authority, but also the Palestinian national movement. That is deeply and widely believed. My heart really goes out to them, because I feel like the Palestinians are twice orphaned. They’re not only orphaned by Israeli’s leadership but by their own. And you know the same thing of these suicide bombs. You know, we see so many reports — I went to the house of the suicide bomber, and the mother said, “Please, you’ve taken one of my sons. I’ve got 11 more.” I don’t buy it.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: When the camera is gone, I’ll tell you something, Jim, that mother is weeping that a child she gave birth to from her womb just blew himself into shreds. I don’t buy it. I think there’s a lot more percolating, particularly under the surface in the Palestinian community that is going to be a big problem over time for Yasser Arafat’s ability to continue to lead the Palestinian movement. I don’t know how or where it’s going to reflect itself. I think there’s enormous anger at Israel, but I think there’s enormous anger at him, as well.

JIM LEHRER: Back to Israel for a moment, Israeli public opinion. You talked about people being afraid and what is their attitude now about… Sharon, about where the Sharon strategy has led and is leading?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Two-thirds of Israel are for everything, Jim. They are for reoccupying the West Bank and for getting out of the West Bank. They’re in support of what Sharon did, and they’re in support of the Saudi peace plan. You have a public that is truly, truly divided. That is, the Israeli public felt that really there was a fantasy taking root among the Palestinians, and the fantasy was that Israel, like the Lebanese Hezbollah militia drove Israel out of Lebanon, that Israel was just a big dumb Silicon Valley where everyone just wants their BMW and their stock options. And if you push them hard enough with suicide bombs and guerrilla action you can actually drive them not only out of the West Bank, but maybe farther. And that myth, I believe, had taken hold. Ariel Sharon punctured that myth.

]He did it with the help of every Israeli. They got 110% volunteerism for people to sign up for this mission– believe me. And the theme of the fighting, the war… we went into Nablus, they said. We went into Jenin where everything happened there. We didn’t drop bombs from the air. This wasn’t like you Americans in Afghanistan. We fought house-to-house. And the message of that house- to-house fighting we were trying to send, if you think we’re just a soft, dumb Silicon Valley, well, think again. South Lebanon is one thing. South Tel Aviv is another.

JIM LEHRER: Has that message been received by the Palestinians?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I believe it has been received. But I also believe something else, Jim. Their message to Israelis has also been received, which is, if you think this occupation can go on merrily or be realigned, you know, with a few things here or there on your own terms, you’re really wrong. And that’s why I compare this moment, as violent as it is, to actually the 1973 War. First, Anwar Sadat crosses the Suez Canal and pierces Israel’s sense of invulnerability at that time.

JIM LEHRER: They never thought he could do that.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Never, never thought he could do that, and who? Ariel Sharon coming back the other way with the left hook, traps the Egyptian third army and pierces Egypt’s sense of victory. And so you had an equilibrium where both sides felt they were bleeding, both sides felt they had sent a message to the other side, and a very creative diplomat called Henry Kissinger understood that in this equilibrium was a moment of enormous opportunity for diplomacy. I believe the same kind of equilibrium exists right now.

The Israelis feel they’ve sent Palestinians a message. But at the same time you tell them, “please, no more suicide bombs.” The Palestinians have been sent a message by Ariel Sharon, okay, but at the same time they don’t want this fight to resume. It’s a great opportunity, I believe, for diplomacy. If you ignore what people are saying and just listen to what they’re feeling, you will see this opportunity.

JIM LEHRER: How in the world do you do that? I mean, you’ve written about this. I mean, the Arab television and then the Internet where the message is going to the Arab side and also, as you say, 110 percent on the Israeli side, how can you ignore what’s being said?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, sometimes you just have to, because if you understand how deep, deep down people… the vast majority so want this over.

JIM LEHRER: What side?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Both sides. I really, really believe that. What I think has been missing from the American side is an appreciation of this moment. That what’s needed now is not some cockamamie conference of foreign ministers where we stir around the issues again. What’s needed is an American plan, the Clinton plan, that says very clearly, this is what we believe is the basis of a fair solution.

JIM LEHRER: But a real solution.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Not an interim solution.

JIM LEHRER: Go the whole route.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Go the whole route and what we think is the basis of a fair solution. My problem with the Bush Administration is that, you know, when you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. Because they themselves are not fully committed, you know, to an idea of what the final status agreement should look like, and they’re torn between them quite clearly, I don’t think they can fully seize this moment. That’s a real tragedy. What we miss, Jim in some ways, what drove Henry Kissinger was the Cold War. There was a big strategic issue out there that he knew he had to respond to. That’s missing now.

JIM LEHRER: If we don’t do it, the Russians might do it.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: If we don’t do it, maybe it won’t get done. But who’s going to come in — the Europeans?

JIM LEHRER: Do I mischaracterize what you’ve been saying that you came back from this trip to the Middle East at least with some optimism, in other words, some encouragement that this thing could actually… there are ways to solve this…

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Stop the killing…and get this thing on…

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: There’s a poll when I was in Israel. 52 percent of Israelis support King Abdullah’s peace plan. In the middle of all of this, all this suicide bombing, here’s a peace plan calling for full withdrawal, for full normalization.

JIM LEHRER: The last thing you would ever…

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Exactly. 52 percent, and it wasn’t presented to them by Abdullah directly, let alone approved by any Israeli government. It tells what is there in terms of the raw material. But you alluded to something else, which is more on the bad news side that I really felt on this trip.

I was in Dubai. I got in late at night — 2:00 in the morning. I was watching the television there. It was one of the Arab satellite television station. These are new, privately owned TVs and they’re widely watched – called Arab News Network. And it was 2:00 in the morning, and I was watching, and on it was just streaming video of Israelis bashing, shooting, dragging, punching Palestinians. Now, I would like to tell you that it was out of context, but there was no context. In fact, there were no words. It was just streaming pictures and martial music. Now, this is what is being beamed basically into Arab homes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

So a lot of people say the Arab street doesn’t matter. Well, the Arab street, and particularly Arab youth, have been deeply influenced by these videos by what’s going out on the Internet in the Arab world. If I’ve drawn one conclusion from this trip, not just to the Arab world but to Indonesia as well, it’s that we are being connected technologically to each other much faster than we are socially, culturally, and politically. I was in Indonesia just to jump in for a second because it’s relevant here. I was at a dinner with an Indonesia journalist, and one journalist started railing against the Fox Network and Bill O’Reilly. I’m thinking, “what the heck is this about?” She went off on O’Reilly and the spin room. I said, “what’s the deal?”

JIM LEHRER: Where did she see it?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: It’s in her local cable package in Jakarta.

JIM LEHRER: Call 1-800 and you get it.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: You got it. Part of the local package. We’re all now in each other’s face technologically, but it’s a total mismatch, because socially, culturally, and politically we don’t have the frameworks at all to appreciate what we’re seeing. And the Internet, alas, is even making it worse.

Again in Indonesia, an American diplomat told me he was in Jogyakarta talking to some Muslim fundamentalists there and hearing about how Muslims didn’t do 9/11, how 4,000 Jews were warned to get out of the World Trade Center– a smorgasbord of myths about this. She asked him, where do you get this? He gets it either from the Internet, or if he’s not on it, from people who are on it. One of the problems with the Internet, I’ve discovered that people don’t understand it. The Internet is an open sewer, it’s untreated, unfiltered information. But because it comes with this technological package, I read it on the Internet, you know, it’s science.

JIM LEHRER: That’s it. The Internet told me.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: The Internet told me. Sometimes it’s believed even more. If I learned one thing on this trip, this is a problem, and it’s going to be an increasing problem as more people get on the Internet. I fear not that there’s going to be more understanding; there may be less understanding.

JIM LEHRER: You wrote your column about talking to some of these kids in Indonesia. They had all the myths, right?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I went to an Indonesia version of a Madrassah, an Islamic school, kids from kindergarten right through high school and even college kids — lovely kids — really articulate. They got a group together who spoke English. But from the mouths of babes, it just breaks your heart. I mean, to hear them telling you that America is the enemy of the Muslim world, that no Muslims were involved in 9/11, that they understood that actually Americans did that, that Al Gore was Jewish — the whole kind of full conspiracy theory.

And what I see coming together, congealing in the mind of Muslim youths from the Middle East all the way to Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world, is three things are conflating, Jim: America, Israel, and Jews, okay, are controlling the media, are out to undermine Islam, and basically are our enemies. And that is so dangerous. That is so sad to see, but it is there.

JIM LEHRER: Welcome home, Tom. Thank you.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Thanks.