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Tom Friedman’s Journal

January 16, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Tom Friedman is just back from Egypt and Israel, and joins us now. Welcome back.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Good to be here, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Egypt first. From what you could tell, what is the popular sentiment about the prospect of another war in Iraq?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, the best barometer I had was being in al-Hazar mosque at last Friday’s prayer. That’s the most important prayer mosque in the Muslim world, the leading Islamic university. It was very striking to me the prayer sermon was given by a man who is kind of the leading spiritual figure there, and it was a very sedate, understated talk about how Islam deals with owe oppressors. People came in and performed their prayer in a very solemn way. You could actually feel the kind of spiritual effect of it. And then as soon as he was done, boom, like somebody flipped a switch, somebody jumped up on somebody else’s shoulders, another guy threw up a thousand leaflets into the air. And it was like the official service ended and the street service began. They started marching around the mosque. What was striking about it and what they were chanting which was very political is I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is no one was chanting in support of Saddam Hussein. That was very striking. The bad news is that everyone was chanting against George Bush. And so you really feel that kind of split there.

MARGARET WARNER: So unlike maybe the run-up to the Gulf War last time where Saddam tried to build himself into sort of a popular figure in the Arab world, you say that’s not happening.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: That’s not there. That sense of Saddam Hussein as a folk hero, the robin hood of the Arab world, the guy who will….

MARGARET WARNER: Champion of the Palestinians.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: It’s not there as all. A friend told me a friend told me a friend of his in Egypt had just called him and said the mood is that people see Saddam as a hijacker. He’s like the guy who’s hijacked a country. If American commandos can liberate those people being hijacked without hurting of the passenger, i.e., the Iraqi people, I think this war is not going to be wildly applauded but people will, I think, accept it. There’s a little bit, I believe, of every Arab in the Middle East today, Margaret, who is rooting for George Bush to go in there and punch Saddam in the nose and remove him. Now, there is also part of every Arab that is very uncomfortable with the United States going in, stomping around their region and doing it. But there is a little bit of them that wishes he would do it to Saddam and 22 other Arab leaders at the same time.

MARGARET WARNER: But you still saw what in public or publicly a lot of anti-U.S. sentiment?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: A lot of anti-U.S. sentiment still there, almost all of it related to a perception– some fairly and some unfairly– a perception of the Bush administration that this administration is completely indifferent and disconnected to the issue that is at the most of the center of the Arab world today, that animates Arabs the most, which is the Arab-Israeli conflict. What hurt the president most and what got quoted to me back time and time again is his statement that Ariel Sharon is a man of peace. Now the fact is the Bush administration has done a lot more to try to advance the Arab-Israeli conflict than it’s gotten credit for in the Arab world and the Arab press which is a deeply distorted lens.

Nevertheless certain things stand out. Secretary Powell came out with a democracy initiative in the Arab world. So many people said to me $29 billion, let’s see, there are 290 million Arabs that’s 10 cents a person. That’s what America thinks about democracy in the Arab world — 10 cents a person. It’s more complicated than that. The idea for the first time that the secretary of state is calling for democracy in the Arab world is important but again because of the Arab- Israeli thing, it all gets distorted. People say sure you want to punish us with democracy. You really aren’t inviting us into your future because what you really care about is Israel. You’re going to Iraq in order to save Israel. Until we do what we can to close that well basically, that well of antipathy between Arabs and Israelis, it’s going to haunt it. It’s going to dog, it’s going to cloud everything we do.

MARGARET WARNER: Speaking though of the prospect of war, where is the government of Egypt? President Mubarak publicly has talked a lot about the need to avert war.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I had a chance to talk to President Mubarak privately while I was there. The conversation will remain private, but I had a sense, you know, in talking to Egyptian officials that there is a quiet dialogue going on right now among Arab leaders on how to get Saddam Hussein out of power in a peaceful way. You saw some reports today coming out of Saudi Arabia, in fact, President Mubarak went to Saudi Arabia a couple days ago. What are these leaders worried about? They’re terribly worried about a war. Obviously that’s going to inflame their streets, destabilize the region. Intensify the economic downturn that is sweeping through that area.

But what are they also concerned about? They’re concerned about looking to be the handmaidens of the Bush administration. And they’re also concerned about approaching Saddam and being rebuffed and therefore looking weak and feckless. So it’s got to be done in a very, very delicate way. One of the questions I heard raised is where would he go? Egypt doesn’t want him. Saudi Arabia doesn’t want him. The most often-mentioned place was maybe the Russians would take him — a nice little dacha on the Black Sea for Saddam. Whether this will come about, I don’t know but people are talking about.

MARGARET WARNER: That same meeting earlier this week with Crown Prince Abdullah and Mubarak and I think the Turkish foreign minister also gave rise to stories that they were trying to cook up a coup against Saddam. Does that sound….

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I have no idea. I don’t know that they have any more assets really in Iraq than the United States or the CIA. The Saudis cooking up a coup in Iraq, I don’t know. They’re not the kind of coup people. They’re not the people I would go to cook up a coup.

MARGARET WARNER: Now to Israel. There of course the big news is the impending election 12 days from now. What did you find?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I found that if there was an election going on in Israel, no one seemed to have told the Israeli people. The mood was so subdued you saw very little sign of elections — a few signs, you know, here and there. I think really the most telling indication to me is that there’s a small Israeli party that is likely to get one and possibly two seats in this parliament. It’s called Green Leaf. You’ve never heard of it before. They advocate the legalization of marijuana. And the fact that this little party, you know, has really emerged here and might actually get seats in the parliament really tells you about the mood there, a mood in the public that nothing has worked. The left solution, Oslo didn’t work. The right solution crack down on the Palestinians hasn’t worked. When Ariel Sharon took office from Ehud Barak a couple years ago now, 50 Israelis had died in the second Palestinian uprising. Now 720 Israelis have died. So this crackdown hasn’t exactly been a huge success. It’s no wonder that somebody’s, you know, saying basically let’s just smoke dope. I mean, you know, nothing basically is working here.

MARGARET WARNER: But why hasn’t that animated the left to say that, you know, Ariel Sharon doesn’t delivered, we’re less safe and less secure than we were?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Basically, Margaret, you know, the thing that is hard for outsiders to really appreciate– I found this throughout the Arab world in both Israel and America because they’re still very confused about us. What they don’t appreciate is the psychological drama that is inflicted on a people from a hundred suicide bombs in a hundred days and the psychological trauma inflicted here of a hundred million people watching one suicide bomb. These are two traumatized societies still. So what’s happened in Israel basically is that trauma, that sense that we are up against a really, really evil force has led people to say you know what? We just need our biggest, toughest guy out there. It’s interesting — I spent a morning with the head of the labor party. He even told me as we went around campaigning it’s very interesting, he goes into Likud hot beds, markets, the universities, places where they threw tomatoes at Shimon Peres. He’s received actually very well; 70 percent of Israelis actually support his proposal for separation from the Palestinians, a fence. We need a disconnect.

MARGARET WARNER: A two-state solution.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: But they don’t trust him for the labor party to deliver it. They want a right wing surgeon to do left wing surgery.

MARGARET WARNER: And meanwhile, you said, the conflict’s entering a terrible new phase, the beginning of the end of the two-state solution.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, what happens when there is no solution is that by default Israel remains in control of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. And by the year 2010, there are going to be more Arabs living in those areas than Palestinians. And when that happens, the Palestinians are no longer going to call for two states; they’re going to call for one man, one vote. And if you think it’s hard for Israelis, or American Jews to defend Israel on college campuses today, wait till they have to argue against one man, one vote.

MARGARET WARNER: And you wrote that the settlement is what’s helping drive this.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Yeah. Basically the settlers, by default and by inertia, are able to basically sink deeper and deeper roots both legally and illegally with more and more settlements, and although Israelis want separation and although they want that right wing surgeon Ariel Sharon to do it, he’s not going to do it. He’s the architect of those settlements; he seems to be paralyzed at the subject of actually being the one to uproot them.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom, thanks a lot.