Thomas Friedman
Thomas FriedmanReuters

Dr. Medoffis founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is Whistleblowers: Four Who Fought to Expose the Holocaust to America, a nonfiction graphic novel with artist Dean Motter, published by Dark Horse / Yoe Books. As published in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

In the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas invasion of Israel, Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times has written numerous columns attacking Israeli Prime Minister of Benjamin Netanyahu.

But before anybody suspects Friedman of being obsessed with Netanyahu, let’s be clear: Friedman has publicly assailed seven other Israeli prime ministers, as well.

The first was Golda Meir. In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Friedman lambasted Prime Minister Meir for insisting on the inclusion of Holocaust studies in the curricula of Israeli high schools and army officers’ courses. She "encouraged" what Friedman called "the 'Holocausting' of the Israeli psyche,” turning Israel into “Yad Vashem with an air force” (pp.280-281)

Meir’s successor, Yitzhak Rabin, was Friedman’s next target. As one of the leaders of the “Middle East Peace Group” at Brandeis University in 1974, Friedman criticized opponents of Yasir Arafat’s infamous speech at the United Nations and demanded that the Rabin government negotiate with the PLO leader. (We know how that turned out, ed.)

Some of Friedman’s criticism of Israeli prime ministers has bordered on the vulgar. His book From Beirut to Jerusalem included this tasteless psychosexual analysis of Menachem Begin: “[He] loved the idea of Jewish power, Jewish tanks, Jewish pride. They were his pornography. He needed a war to satisfy his deep longings for dignity. And to cure all his traumas about Jewish impotence.” (p.144)

From 1984 to 1990, Israel was ruled by a national unity government with Shimon Peres of Labor and Yitzhak Shamir of Likud each serving as prime minister for varying periods of time. Friedman continued blasting away: Israel’s leaders were afflicted by “megalamonia”; “the Israelis are getting a bad press because they deserve it”; Israel was “demonizing” the Palestinian Arabs; Israel’s reluctance to release 700 imprisoned Arab terrorists “certainly contributed” to the hijacking of a TWA airliner; the Labor-Likud government “used” and “exploited” Arab terrorists’ murder of U.S. Army Colonel William Higgins.

Peres, Shamir, and Rabin (their defense minister) were cowards, Friedman wrote in From Beirut to Jerusalem. Peres and Rabin were “moderates with no guts.” He and Shamir were “too frightened” to make more concessions to the Arabs. “Peres and Shamir, in other words, not only failed to lead,” he wrote, “they actually made the Israeli public dumb” because “they got them to believe” that creation of a PLO state next door was too risky. (pp.270-271)

Shamir was prime minister in 1990 when Friedman orchestrated the stunt in which Secretary of State James Baker publicly accused the prime minister of not being “serious about peace.” Following Friedman’s suggestion, Baker recited the White House phone number aloud, for Shamir to call when he changed his mind.

There was a peculiar footnote to that particular episode. Nearly twenty years later, on November 7, 2009, Friedman wrote yet another column in the Times accusing Israel of not being seriously interested in peace. Benjamin Netanyahu happened to be prime minister at the time. In his column, Friedman recommended to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that she should “dust off James Baker’s line: ‘When you’re serious, give us a call: 202-456-1414. Ask for Barack.’ Otherwise, stay out of our lives.”

Remarkably, Friedman did not acknowledge in that column that he was the one who was the original author of that sarcastic jibe. Instead, he pretended that it was “James Baker's line.” Invoking the former Secretary of State gave the line more gravitas. And presumably, Friedman assumed most Times readers would not realize that Baker had already revealed the truth in his autobiography, years earlier.

Friedman’s ire was not reserved for Likud prime ministers such as Shamir, in 1990, or Netanyahu, in 2009; he did not hesitate to denounce Labor’s Peres when he served as prime minister in 1995-1996. The Times columnist decried a Peres government strike against Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, in which some civilians were inadvertently killed, as “so out of proportion, its apology so lacking, its effect on Lebanon so devastating.”

Friedman never liked Ariel Sharon, either when he was prime minister under Likud or when he broke away to lead the country as head of Kadima. In one particularly acerbic column, on February 5, 2004, Friedman asserted that Prime Minister Sharon “had George Bush under house arrest in the Oval Office…surrounded by Jewish and Christian pro-Israel lobbyists, [and] by a vice president, Dick Cheney, who’s ready to do whatever Mr. Sharon dictates…” In that column, Friedman claimed Sharon, Jewish lobbyists, Cheney, and unidentified “political handlers” were “all conspiring to make sure the president does nothing [concerning Israel].” If you didn’t know it had appeared in America’s most prestigious newspaper, you might think such ugly talk of sinister Jews controlling the president emanated from some of society’s most unsavory corners.

Perhaps the most remarkable chapter in Friedman’s history of verbally accosting Israeli prime ministers concerns the tenure of Ehud Olmert, whose policies and positions arguably were the most left-of-center of any Israeli leader in many decades.

After years of rocket attacks on northern Israel, Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorists crossed the border on July 12, 2006, and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Prime Minister Olmert responded by launching a full-scale air assault and ground invasion against Hezbollah’s forces in southern Lebanon.

Friedman demanded that Olmert stop short of defeating Hezbollah and instead put Israel’s trust in the creation of a new international force to guard its northern border. Friedman acknowledged, in a July 21 column, that “Israel does not like international forces on its borders and worries they will not be effective,” but after all, who cares what Israel likes? Friedman urged the George W. Bush administration to press Israel to accept such a force, proposing it enlist former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush to orchestrate the effort.

Five days later, Friedman challenged Olmert again. Fourteen days of hitting Hezbollah had been more than enough: “Point made,” he wrote. There was no need for Israel to deliver a “knockout blow.” Instead, “It is now time to wind down this war and pull together a deal — a cease-fire, a prisoner exchange, a resumption of the peace effort and an international force…” He also urged the Bush administration to recruit Syria (!) as part of this effort, in exchange for negotiations over an Israeli surrender of the Golan Heights.

Friedman’s rhetoric escalated in the days to follow. The region was descending into “madness,” he wrote. Muslim terrorists were carrying out atrocities in various countries, Friedman pointed out, including on his list “Israel retaliating by, at times, leveling whole buildings, with the guilty and the innocent inside,” as if Israeli self-defense was the moral equivalent of the terrorist attacks he cited. (July 28) “Israel needs to get a cease-fire and an international force into south Lebanon — and get out. Israel can’t defeat Hezbollah…” (August 9) The Israelis have “already inflicted enormous damage on Hezbollah,” he counseled. “[I]t shouldn’t throw more good lives after some elusive knockout blow.” (August 11)

In Friedman’s recent fulminations against Netanyahu over Gaza, one can hear the echoes of his 2006 criticism of Olmert for killing civilians in Lebanon, his demand that Israel quickly retreat, and his warning against knocking out Hezbollah altogether. How does that advice look now, with Hezbollah many times stronger and firing rockets into northern Israel almost daily? And how safe will Israel be from future attacks from Gaza if it follows Friedman’s current counsel?

One thing can be said about Thomas Friedman. In writing about the Middle East for more than four decades, he has been consistent and forthright: his problem is not Benjamin Netanyahu; his problem is Israel.