Most influential Jews in the media

Thomas Friedman, our sole journalist on the list, earned a front-row seat when he was the first to interview US President Barack Obama after the interim agreement with Iran was announced.

May 24, 2015 15:14
Thomas Friedman

Thomas Friedman. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Jerusalem Post has put together its annual list of '50 most influential Jews' who have impacted the world last year, and have the potential to affect change in years to come.

Thomas Friedman

A master at turning simplicity into an art form

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When the president of the United States wants to make an in-depth statement to the press, it’s to Thomas Friedman. While the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of six best-selling books won’t comment on who called who, he does admit that before sitting down with the leader of the free world, he thinks to himself, “Don’t blow it!” Friedman’s charm – and his influence – is wrapped up in his writing and speaking style. Complicated matters can – and should – be whittled down to a metaphor or a catchphrase.

When globalization and the ever-shrinking world are mentioned, Friedman jumps in: “Some say it’s flat!” – a reference to two of his best-sellers, Hot, Flat and Crowded and The World is Flat, both dealing with the effects of globalization and the danger of not taking renewable energy seriously.

When he makes a point, he sticks to it. This is what makes him a good salesman. He coins a phrase, and he seeks to put it into the vernacular. He takes the complicated, simplifies it and makes it easy to remember. He’s been able to reach millions with his writing as the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, is a sought-after public speaker, and has countless recognitions and awards.

But probably his most notable work is a book that tackles one of the most tumultuous times in a tumultuous region, from a deeply personal perspective. From Beirut to Jerusalem (published in 1989) is as much an analysis of the problems of the Middle East – which sadly still ring true today – as an autobiography of Friedman’s coming of age as a journalist in a war zone.

While he jokes that any update to the book would consist of one page, one line: – “Nothing’s changed,” upon closer reflection, he says the shift in direction is actually tragic. The taming of the first intifada and the hope of Oslo – these instances gave people hope that there was a better future on the horizon. But with terrorism from the Palestinians and continued settlement building on the Israeli side, Friedman says that neither side can relax.

“There’s nothing worse than what’s happened, and that’s war after peace,” he says.

In an phone interview with The Jerusalem Post, Friedman speaks about these pressing issues in the best way he knows how: Plainly and with zero sugarcoating.

A lot of people compare the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a marriage, and some people suggest they should just have a divorce, once they divide up the territory, build a wall and have nothing to do with each other. Do you subscribe to any particular camp in this sense?

I’m for a negotiated two-state solution. I have been since I was first introduced to this conflict at the age of 15, and I’m 61 now. That’s always been my position, that that is going to be the best thing for Israelis and Palestinians. That Israelis will never be able to take their shoes off and relax unless Palestinians can, and Palestinians will never be able to take their shoes off and relax unless Israelis can. So how one gets there – by mutual agreement, by unilateral, by unilateral quiet agreement – I’m utterly indifferent to. But if you care about Israel as a Jewish state, a democratic state and a state of the Jewish people in its historic homeland, and you want to maximize all three of those things, then in my view, you have to be for a two-state solution. That’s where I come from.

What do you think was the failure of this last round of US-mediated peace talks?

I have a saying that the Middle East only puts a smile on your face when it starts with them. Camp David started with Israelis and Egyptians meeting secretly in Morocco, Oslo started by Israelis and Palestinians meeting secretly in Oslo – we [the US] only found out later. Same with Camp David. So I’m a huge believer that what starts with them, we can amplify, nurture and reinforce. But what starts with us [the United States], we become the whole object of the negotiations and the focus of the negotiations, and I think that’s what happened in this last round. It didn’t really start with them, and so it couldn’t be self-sustaining.

Do you think Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a partner for peace? And also, do you think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a partner for peace?

I really don’t know. I have reason to wonder about both. I think that neither one strikes me as a profile of courage.

Have you come across anyone in your time covering or visiting the region that you think maybe, on either side, is an untapped resource for being a very strong leader in coming to a negotiated solution?

I don’t think it’s so much about personality. There’s no question that Netanyahu has the will, politically, to do this, and Abbas I think does, too. The fact is, though, that any peace deal will require really heroic and historic compromises, on both sides, and that will be ideologically hard for whichever leader chooses to make those compromises. And it will be personally, physically dangerous, and therefore I don’t know who’s ready to make that move.... We are getting perilously close to being locked into a one-state solution. And if that were to happen, that would be terrible.

With a lot of the focus on ISIS as the major threat of the region, keeping Iran from getting the bomb, [and] the Israeli election of a more right-wing government, what do you foresee in the next couple of years [as far as] any hope of restarting the peace talks?

Let me step back: I believe it is Iran’s No., maybe, 2 strategic objective – No. 1 has to do with Iraq and the Arab world – but Iran’s No. 2 strategic objective is that Israel must always remain in the West Bank. Iran believes that as long as Israel stays in the West Bank, it will be in a grinding conflict with the Palestinians that will be a source of energy for the “resistance movement” in the region, and it will delegitimize Israel globally.... The longer Israel is [in the West Bank], the more the world focuses on Israeli tensions and the West Bank, and not on Iran’s abuses against its own people. If you are an advocate of the one-state solution, you are advocating one of Iran’s top strategic priorities. And because I’m not interested in advocating Iran’s top strategic priorities – I’m interested in advocating those of the Jewish people – I believe that it’s in our overriding interest, and this is all I’ve ever asked... I do know it’s in Israel’s overwhelming interest if it wants to be a Jewish, democratic state in the Land of Israel, to test, test, retest; test, test and retest again whether it has a Palestinian partner for a secure peace. That’s all I’ve ever asked of any Israeli government, and I see Netanyahu’s government is not really interested in doing that in a sincere way any longer.

Are there any issues that you think aren’t getting enough attention, that you think journalists and the media should be focusing more on?

For my money, you can’t focus enough on renewable energy and who’s doing it right and who’s doing it well. I think it’s something that’s really going to define the future in many ways. It’s something I try to invest my time in, to make sure it’s getting covered in a way that demonstrates to people how effective it can be as an alternative to fossil fuel.

Is there anyone you want to interview that you haven’t had the chance to yet?

I would have loved to interview Nelson Mandela. It’d be interesting to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin... to Xi Jinping [the general secretary of the Communist Party in China]. Those are three people that sort of stand out. I’ve had the chance to talk to [US President Barack] Obama and other American presidents. I’d love to talk to the caliph of ISIS.

I would be very interested to sit down and talk to the president of Iran, not out of support, just out of curiosity. I’d like to know more about how these people think.

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