Thomas Friedman, New York Times foreign affairs columnist and Top Global Thinker, has never been particularly associated with human empathy.
He does, however, regularly feel moved to put himself in Israeli shoes. For example, after the Israeli military slaughtered almost 1,200 people — most of them civilians — in Lebanon in 2006, he offered the assessment: “It was not pretty, but it was logical.” He advised the Israelis to pursue the same logic in the Gaza Strip.
This week, Friedman took it upon himself to occupy three different sets of Israeli shoes. His August 12 op-ed, titled “If I Were an Israeli Looking at the Iran Deal,” begins: “With the U.S. and Israel openly arguing over the Iran nuclear deal, I’ve asked myself this: How would I look at this deal if I were an Israeli grocer, an Israeli general or the Israeli prime minister?”
Leaving aside the military and prime ministerial footwear for the moment, let’s focus on the first option — and specifically the question: Why an Israeli grocer? Why not an Israeli hotel clerk, janitor, taxi driver?
Those blissfully unacquainted with the minutiae of the Friedman oeuvre might not know that he has long had a thing for grocers. In his very first book From Beirut to Jerusalem, originally published in 1989, he determines that America must play four simultaneous diplomatic roles in the Middle East: obstetrician, friend, grocer, and real son-of-a-bitch.
“Because the prevailing political culture in the Arab world and Israel is a merchant culture, where men have traditionally lived by trading, bargaining, and negotiating with their wits,” Friedman writes, this means that “any statesman dealing in the Middle East has to learn to look beyond the banners and the ideology and see the merchant in every man there.” Thus, the United States “should don the messy apron of a corner grocer in order to help the parties forge an agreement.”
Part of the inspiration behind this Orientalist wisdom is, it seems, the since-deceased Fouad Ajami, whom As’ad AbuKhalil has described as possibly “the first Arab Zionist to advocate publicly for his Zionism.” In his book, Friedman notes that “Ajami always likes to say that there are basically two political types in Middle East history: the messiah and the merchant” — a view appropriately lambasted by Edward Said as a “moronic and hopelessly false.”
Meanwhile, even when an American statesman is in real-son-of-a-bitch mode, he must still “understand that he is dealing with grocers who often play by their own rules.” Friedman proceeds to guide his metaphor to the brink of self-combustion:
The Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage bartering demonstrated as well as anything could have just how cynical this grocery shopping was. Colonel Oliver North thought he was dealing with Iranian ‘moderates’ when he was really dealing with Iranian grocers; he had no idea how to bargain with the original rug merchants. He should have taken business lessons from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
So what does the present-day Israeli grocer have to say about the Iranian nuclear deal? Following Friedman’s telepathic investigation — during which he refrains from rehashing the old Iranian grocer theme — he announces that “I as an Israeli grocer would reject this deal from my gut.” Why? Because Iran “regularly cheated” to expand its uranium enrichment capabilities, and because Iran stages “ ‘death to Israel’ marches,” and because Hezbollah.
Curiously, Friedman manages in the next paragraph to mention Israel’s own expansive nuclear arsenal without citing its entirely illicit nature or the fact that Israel has for decades lied to the world about its existence, which would seem to be a good example of “regular cheating.”
Having now transitioned from Israeli grocer to Israeli general, Friedman throws in some trivia about the Israeli military’s Arab civilian casualties: “It is not pretty, but this is not Scandinavia.” The upshot: “If I were an Israeli general, I wouldn’t love this deal, but I could see its advantages, especially if the U.S. enhanced its deterrence.”
Moving on to the role of Israeli premier, Friedman drafts this response to the nuclear deal:
I’d start by admitting that my country faces two existential threats: One, external, is an Iranian bomb and the other, internal, is the failure to separate from the West Bank Palestinians into two states, leaving only a one-state solution where Israel would end up governing so many Palestinians it could no longer be a Jewish democracy.
Never mind Gaza, or the fact that there is no democracy in Israel to preserve in the first place. According to Prime Minister Friedman, the allegedly existential threat posed by Iran can be eased by “ask[ing] the U.S. to position in the Middle East the U.S. Air Force’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a precision-guided, 30,000-pound ‘bunker buster’ bomb that could take out any Iranian reactor hidden in any mountain.”
Because a homicidal Israeli state backed by ever more obscene weaponry will clearly see the need to relinquish land it wants.
Perhaps Friedman should stick to grocery lists.