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Take That, Thomas Friedman!

Dr Rafael Medoff, posted here Dec 22, 2023

[This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post  on December 17, 2023 and is being reprinted with the permission of the author. 



    Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations this week dramatized Hamas’s villainy and intransigence by holding up a sign with a Hamas leader’s phone number, and urging the assembled UN delegates to call him.


    “Tell Hamas to put down their arms, turn themselves in, and return our hostages,” Ambassador Gilad Erdan declared. “This will bring a  complete ceasefire that will last forever.”


    New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman probably was more than a little annoyed by Erdan’s tactic. Friedman must have thought he had cornered the market on sarcastically publicizing telephone numbers, when he persuaded the U.S. Secretary of State to use that tactic against Israel’s leaders years ago.


    This episode goes back to Friedman’s first decade at the Times, and intersects with his original declared aspiration to work “at the Middle East desk of the State Department.” 


    At some point in the late 1980s, Friedman became a personal friend and tennis partner of then-Secretary of State James Baker. Needless to say, journalists do not usually serve as secret advisers to government officials whom they are covering. The editors of The New Republic, remarking on Friedman’s extremely sympathetic coverage of Baker, once suggested he should be called “the New York Times’ State Department spokesman” or “the James Baker Ministry of Information.”


    Neither Friedman nor the Times revealed his relationship with Baker at the time. But in his 1995 autobiography, The Politics of Diplomacy, Baker admitted it. More than that, Baker revealed that when he and Friedman met for their weekly tennis game, Friedman would give him advice on how to pressure Israel.


    Baker gave Friedman “credit” for conceiving a public relations gimmick that directly undermined the U.S.-Israel friendship. While testifying to a congressional committee in June 1990, Baker tried to embarrass the Israeli government by reciting the White House phone number and sarcastically suggesting that Israel’s leaders should “call when they're serious about peace.”


    Among the many ugly aspects of James Baker’s treatment of Israel, the phone number episode hardly was the most grievous. There was, of course, the time he cursed out American Jews over their voting patterns. And there was the crisis he provoked by blocking U.S. loan credits for the resettlement in Israel of Soviet Jewish refugees. 


    Baker also has repeatedly heckled Israel since leaving office. In one particularly absurd outburst, Baker claimed (in 2007) that if the U.S. would begin negotiations with Syria, Syria would stop arming Hezbollah and Hamas would recognize Israel.


    Still, there was something about the phone number insult that stung. Maybe it was because it was so wildly inaccurate for Secretary Baker to claim that Israel wasn’t serious about peace. Or maybe because he was treating America’s loyal ally with such mean-spirited, undeserved contempt.


    There was a fascinating postscript to the episode. On November 7, 2009, Friedman wrote yet another column in the Times accusing Israel of not being seriously interested in peace. He 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.


    Ambassador Erdan may not be familiar with Thomas Friedman’s sarcastic ghostwriting for Secretary Baker. But even if it was not Erdan’s intention, the sign that he held up at the UN this week rhetorically turned the tables on an arch-critic of Israel. It was long overdue.


(Dr. Medoff is 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 America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History, published by the Jewish Publication Society & University of Nebraska Press.)


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