Israel optimism? Not in Thomas Friedman’s S.F. talk

Several times during his talk in San Francisco last week, Thomas Friedman apologized to the 550 people in the audience for ruining their lunch.

The renowned New York Times columnist sought to frame today’s geopolitical crises in a new way, but in doing so proffered a decidedly unappetizing future for the Middle East. Unless, that is, the world gets its act together.

Friedman spoke Oct. 29 before a packed Four Seasons Hotel ballroom as part of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Day of Philanthropy. The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner drew on decades of reporting from Israel and the Arab world to address the state of the Middle East and other trouble spots.

Thomas Friedman speaks at the Jewish Community Federation’s Day of Philanthropy on Oct. 29. photo/jcf-faiza ali

Friedman listed the three key forces at play in the world today: changing markets, a rapidly deteriorating natural environment and Moore’s law, named for semiconductor pioneer Gordon Moore, who theorized 50 years ago that the pace of technological advancements would double every two years.

While the interplay of those forces has stressed stable countries such as the United States, they have impacted weaker nations such as Syria, Libya and Iraq “like a hurricane through a trailer park,” Friedman said.

He noted that during the Cold War years, things weren’t terrible for countries like Syria and Egypt. There were two competing superpowers offering aid, and there was no China to syphon off low-wage workers.

“Now the divide is not East and West, North or South, communist or capitalist,” Friedman said. “It’s the world of order and of disorder. In the Mediterranean, tens of thousands are clamoring to get out of the world of chaos and move into the world of control.”

Nations such as Israel are feeling the impact. Friedman noted how thousands of non-Jewish refugees, mostly from Eritrea and South Sudan, have made their way to Israel, contributing to an immigration crisis there.

He also pointed out that although the Muslim-dominated expanse from Morocco to Iran has long contained Christians, Kurds, Druze, Copts and Jews, the area has no tradition of pluralism. Thus, from the Ottomans to the European colonial powers to the 20th-century “kings, colonels and dictators,” those lands were ruled with an iron fist.

“The only way to live together without an iron fist,” he said, “is to learn to live horizontally. You see that struggle all over the Middle East.”

Without a visionary leader, such as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or what Friedman called a “midwife,” such as the United States, to help with transition, “you have the complete breakdown you’re seeing in Syria and Iraq.”

Friedman also fretted about the impact climate change is having on the region. He cited four years of severe drought in Syria as a source of conflict, with thousands of farmers and herders moving to the cities, straining government resources and triggering a rebellion that now features ISIS and other jihadist groups grappling for power.

Turning his focus to Israel, Friedman expressed concern that during last summer’s Gaza war, Hamas fired a rocket that struck near Ben Gurion Airport. This worries him not only because of the intrinsic threat to air travel in Israel, but also how it plays into Iran’s fondest wish: perpetuating the conflict.

“Iran has one strategic objective,” he said. “Israel must never leave the West Bank. Iran is convinced a permanent, grinding conflict will deflect attention from Iran and isolate Israel from the world. I have no idea whether Israel has a stable partner in the Palestinians, but if you want to see what a one-state solution looks like, see this morning’s paper: the war of the knives.”

Taking questions from the audience after his 25-minute talk, Friedman said if Iran violates the newly sealed nuclear deal with the West, Israel should do nothing about it. Rather, it would be a problem the United States would have to solve.

Asked about the obstructionism of Vladimir Putin, who recently launched air strikes in Syria, Friedman said the Russian president is primarily “motivated by internal Russian politics,” but that he is always “looking for dignity in all the wrong places,” pointing to what he called the “sugar highs” of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

Friedman urged the world to approach Russia cautiously. “My grandmother,” he said, “used to tell me, ‘Never destabilize a country that spans nine time zones.’ ”

He ended his time on the podium touting the potential benefits of pluralism coming to the Middle East, citing Tunisia, with thriving institutions such as trade unions and a relatively free press, as a model for how the Arab Spring might succeed. That, he felt, was a hopeful sign.

“We’re going into an age where the return on investment in pluralism is going to explode,” he said. “If you have pluralism, where people govern themselves as equal citizens, you can collaborate with anyone, anywhere. Until pluralism comes to the Middle East, Israel will live in a very bad and dangerous neighborhood.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at