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Interview with Thomas Friedman

Aired April 1, 2004 - 23:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Is that any way to say goodbye? Ariel Sharon says he wants Israel to leave some of the occupied territories, but are Israelis really willing to go?
Hello and welcome.

Israel's "Ha'aretz" newspaper reported Wednesday that the country's high court has extended until Sunday its ban on construction along some contested portions of the barrier that's being built to separate Israel from the Palestinians.

The fence is one of the largest public works projects in Israel's history. It will eventually stretch more than 700 kilometers and has already disrupted the lives of thousands of Palestinians.

Israel says the aim is to keep out suicide bombers. We're going to approach this issue and others with the help of award-winning columnist and author Thomas Friedman. He's reported on the region for decades and has now made a documentary about the barrier called "Straddling the Fence." It will be airing on CNN this weekend.

On our program today, a conversation with Thomas Friedman.

We begin now with a portion of his film and we find him in a Palestinian community completely encircled by Israeli walls, Qalqilya.


THOMAS FRIEDMAN, "STRADDLING THE FENCE": I want to see over here. What does this sign say?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This sign says that it is risky. You are not allowed to be here, and if you are very close here, we are going to shoot.

FRIEDMAN: Mortal danger. Military zone. Any person who passes or damages this fence endangers his life.

Do the people up there know you? Do they recognize you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. The soldier, he knows me.

FRIEDMAN: Now what was here before? This was actually a market area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was here a market.

FRIEDMAN: That served Israelis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Israelis came here, about 22 stalls here, 24 hours open, even for (UNINTELLIGIBLE). They used to come here and we used to have this kind of good relation with them, but in one night they come and they destroy completely for the benefit of this wall.

There is another 100 meters on the other side of the wall that is Palestinian land, and they promise that they are going to make some gates. It's a blind wall without any gates. It's completely closed and people are not allowed to cross.

FRIEDMAN: Even though their fields are on the other side of the wall.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All their fields are on the other side, and if you try to cross, they will shoot.

FRIEDMAN (voice-over): Now that I had a better understanding of how the fence was impacting the daily lives of Palestinians, I wanted to get the reaction of the Israelis in charge of the fence.

(on camera): Hi. Tom Friedman. Nice to meet you.

(voice-over): Brigadier General Ival Guilady (ph) is head of the strategic planning division for the Israeli Defense Forces. He took us to Israel's side of the wall that encloses Qalqilya.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Someone must fight terrorism. We prefer that they will, but if they don't, we have to do it.

We don't want to build this wall. Let me tell you, when we started to build this wall, we planned it to run next to Qalqilya because we thought at that time that it's going to save both people. We were at that time, we didn't think that we were going to have any wall needed. But as we work on the wall, they shoot at the workers and in fact five people were killed.

So the reason why you see a wall there is because of the direct shooting from houses in Qalqilya on that road.

FRIEDMAN (on camera): General, here now overlooking the West Bank town of Qalqilya, it's been sealed off from Israel. Why is that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, let me make it very simple. The terror that came out of Qalqilya to Israel not always was originated within Qalqilya, but it came out from many other places.

FRIEDMAN: So Qalqilya was the gateway for those suicide bombers into Israel is what you're saying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That is correct. Qalqilya is very close to (UNINTELLIGIBLE). You can see the new houses of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) right behind us, less than 1 kilometer. It's a five minute walk. And you must try to prevent terrorists to go there.


MANN: The film is "Straddling the Fence" and you'll see it on CNN this weekend.

Joining us now to talk more about the fence and the film is "New York Times" foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, author of several books, most recently "Longitudes and Attitudes."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Let me ask you the basic question: thumbs up or thumbs down? Is the fence going to make a bad situation better or worse, do you think?

FRIEDMAN: I think if the fence continues the way it's been going, Jonathan, it's going to make not only a bad situation worse, I think ultimately it's going to pose a real existential threat to the state of Israel.

Let me explain what I mean. I can totally understand the desire of Israelis to have a wall around them after a year, two years of suicide bombing. I think none of us really can appreciate, who aren't living there, what it's like to live in a society where -- a society as small as Israel, where you get more than 100 suicide bombs in one year. It can really make people crazy, and this fence, this wall, is really testimony to how crazy it can make people.

I have absolutely no problem with Israel building a fence on the 1967 border. In fact, if Israel built that fence on the 1967 border, my own feeling is that Israel could build that fence 100 feet high.

The problem starts when you don't build the fence, first of all, on the border, when you build it inside the West Bank, and you end up taking more Palestinian land unilaterally. And even if you say, well, we'll give it back later in a negotiation, this really doesn't fly I think for a lot of people. But more importantly, when you build a fence but you keep Israelis on both sides -- that is, you have Israelis from pre-'67 Israel on one side and Israeli settlers in the West Bank on the other, what kind of fence is that?

Good fences make good neighbors, but if my fence runs through the middle of your back yard, then this good fence is going to make for bad neighbors, and that's really where I have a problem with it.

MANN: You said there's going to be Israelis on both sides. There is, though, a plan that Prime Minister Sharon is trying to sell that would move many of the Israelis, that would get much of the Israeli security apparatus out of the West Bank, the disengagement plan, the withdrawal that he has been talking about.

How much would that change life with the wall?

FRIEDMAN: Well, of course, so far Prime Minister Sharon is really just talking about a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and some undefined parts of the West Bank, where he's talked about moving some settlements. He simply is not clear where in the West Bank the fence is going to run and how many Israeli Jews will be on both sides of it.

Here's the problem that we really uncovered in doing the documentary. You know, if you build a fence, Jonathan, and you have Israelis on both sides, well, what you have then is a fence, and then you have a network of smaller fences deeper in the West Bank, because you have all these Israelis on the other side, and they each want smaller fences to protect them.

Well, what that does is really chop up the West Bank into a complete checkerboard, isolating Palestinian communities, and make it as easy for a Palestinian to go from Qalqilya to Hebron as it would be from Qalqilya to Juneau, Alaska.

And as a result of that, what I think could very likely happen, as Palestinians told us in the documentary, is the Palestinian community is going to get so atomized, so broken up, that basically they're going to wake up one morning and basically say to themselves, you know what, I want what the Jewish guy has. Let's see. There's a settlement over there. They have water, electricity, social security, healthcare. Forget about a Palestinian state. It's not going to happen. Our community is completely fragmented in these little cages inside the West Bank. I want what the Jewish guy has. Forget about a Palestinian state, let's just have one man, one vote.

And I think if Palestinians move from fighting the war of Arafat to fighting the war of Mandela, as someone in the documentary describes it, calling for simply one person, one vote in that entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, I think that will pose a real existential threat to Israel.

Israel will be using the same defense against that, which is that we don't believe in one man one vote in this area, as South Africa in the heyday of apartheid used. That is a real moral threat to the state of Israel.

But let me simply say one other thing. I'm sorry that that moral threat is there. I do believe it is a real danger to Israel, but I believe we cannot lose sight also of the fact, this fence is the fence that Hamas built. If there were no suicide bombings, there would be no fence.

MANN: The United States is being asked to support the fence, to recognize it, to offer letter of guarantees, to support it as part of the wider disengagement plan that Prime Minister Sharon is trying to sell to his own people.

Is the United States gong to cast the deciding vote in what happens to the wall and what happens to this plan?

FRIEDMAN: That is under discussion, and I would go back to my principle, and it's the principle that the United States has basically subscribed to since the 1967 war, that the '67 borders should be the starting line of any final negotiation, but doesn't have to be the final line, that it's ambiguous.

You know, it's always been ambiguous on the United States part on whether we would insist on full Israeli withdrawal. Our position was always that that should be decided by the parties. And I think it would be a very, very dangerous thing if the United States, in a bilateral negotiation with Israel, somehow gave American approval to a shifting of that border outside the context of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

MANN: This conversation has been going on for a long time.

FRIEDMAN: Too long.

MANN: What's changed though is news that the Israeli attorney general is considering bringing charges against the prime minister in connection with a bribery scandal. There are some Israelis who believe that a decision of the kind that you described, as having existential implications, really shouldn't be made by a man who might be shortly facing court proceedings.

Is Prime Minister Sharon the right man to be making these kinds of judgments now? And let me ask you a further question. There are some Israelis who think he wants to make these kinds of questions specifically to distract public attention from his own problems. Do you think there's anything to that?

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, one of the dilemmas of the Arab-Israeli conflict right now, Jonathan, is the two guys who have the ability to really forge a compromise and sell it to the largest number of their own people, Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, it's not always clear that they have the will to do it. They have the ability, as everyone keeps telling us. Only Sharon can do this. Only Arafat can do this. But they really haven't manifested the will to do it.

And it is not clear to me how much Sharon's personal predicament right now, a predicament where he needs as much support among the Israeli left as possible to fend off the attorney general and these corruption allegations, how much that is driving this whole process and how much he is just throwing dust in our eyes in order to get the Israeli left more behind him at this time.

So it's not clear to me. I don't think it's clear to many Israelis. If you read the Israeli press, I don't think it's clear to senior members of the Israeli military and security establishments.

MANN: Is it clear to them, is it clear to you, why Sheikh Yassin was killed? Was it in order to sell the Gaza withdrawal to the Israeli public, in order to impress upon the people of Gaza that it's not a sign of an Israeli defeat?

FRIEDMAN: There is no question, I think, that there was a fear on Sharon's part that if he fulfilled his plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip, it would be interpreted as a Hamas victory, and would embolden Hamas and strengthen Hamas's hands against the more secular nationalist forces with the Palestinian community led by Yasser Arafat.

And no doubt that was a part of the motivation in killing Sheikh Yassin, but let's remember, Sheikh Yassin had a lot of blood on his hands. I think he not only was bad for Israel, I think he was terrible for the Palestinians. This is a man who created the intellectual and spiritual cover for Palestinian young people, boys and girls, to wrap themselves in dynamite and blow up as many innocent people as they could, along with themselves.

I believe that tactic is not only offensive to all the values that make a civilization, it's contrary to what I understand are the values of Islam, and it's no way to build a state. You cannot build a Palestinian state on a foundation of suicide.

MANN: Thomas Friedman, we're going to ask you to take a break with us. We're going to pause for a moment, and when we come back broaden out a little bit on our subject matter and talk about some other things that are going on elsewhere in the Middle East.

Stay with us.



MANN (voice-over): U.S. forces in Iraq are promising to fight back in Fallujah.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quite simply, we will respond. We are not going to do a pell-mell rush into the city. It's going to be deliberate, it will be precise, and it will be overwhelming.

MANN: When will the war in Iraq really be over?


Welcome back.

The scene of Americans being killed and dismembered in a distant country is being likened to a similar one is Somalia back in 1993. The crowd dragged the bodies of American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu. The United States withdrew from Somalia and has essentially ignored it ever since.

Iraq is enormously different, at least in part because of the consensus in Washington that the United States has to stay very involved.

Thomas Friedman joins us now once again.

What do you read into the attack in Fallujah? Just a terrible tragedy? Or a bigger message than that?

FRIEDMAN: I think the thing to keep in mind, Jonathan, about the attack in Fallujah, the people who killed these American security personnel, carved up their bodies and then danced on their graves in effect, these are not the people we came to liberate Iraq for. These are the people we came to defeat.

Fallujah is at the heart of Saddam Hussein country. It's at the heart of the Sunni Triangle. It's at the heart of the community that under Saddam was the most privileged in Iraq for centuries, and understands now that with Saddam's downfall those privileges are gone, probably gone forever.

And so what Fallujah tells me is something I've been saying for a long time, which is that the war isn't over.

You see, what happened, because we were unable to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq from the north and had to come from the south, you'll recall that American troops made a blitzkrieg toward Baghdad. Once Baghdad was defeated, the Sunni Triangle -- Tikrit, Fallujah, Ramadi, those areas -- really just collapsed.

The Republican Guard there and the Saddam Fedayeen loyalists there simply took off their uniforms and went home. They weren't defeated. There was no real heavy fighting there. And we're now meeting them in a battlefield a year later.

But what Fallujah tells me is that the war isn't over. It does not tell me that the vast majority of Iraqis feel this way about the United States.

I have no doubt that Iraqis want their country back, the vast majority. It's very easy for them to dislike Saddam and dislike an occupier. Everyone wants to run their own lives. But there is a process for that return of sovereignty underway, and I think the vast majority of Iraqis are in sympathy with that process.

MANN: Do images like those, though, effect the U.S. ability to stay the course? Do pictures like that vote in the USA?

FRIEDMAN: Well, what I find being here now is that those images tend to just reconfirm what you felt about the war already. If you are against the war, you look at those images and say, "See, I told you so. There are no democrats there. They just hate us. It was a fool's errand to ever go there."

If you are a supporter of the war, you look at those pictures and say, "This shows you the real character of what and who we are fighting against."

But I think the most important thing that's missing right now, Jonathan, and that would tip the balance for me, is where are the Iraqi voices? I'm glad Paul Bremer has denounced this. I'm glad the American military spokesman has denounced this. But my God, this is barbarism. This is bodies being chopped up and slaughtered like pieces of a cow. That is so against what we are told Islam is about. That's against any norms of civilized behavior. And I'm waiting to hear some Iraqi voices speaking out against that.

MANN: They could be afraid to speak out, which brings me to my next question. Somehow there is this presumption, in the United States, anyway, and among some Iraqis, that things are really going to change after June 30, after Iraq regains its own sovereignty, but with this kind of violence still being seen daily, and if not this kind, murders being seen daily, both of Iraqis and of foreigners, is Iraq really able to become sovereign? Can if militarily, politically, economically, really stand apart from the United States?

FRIEDMAN: That's a legitimate point. And we're in the middle of that process, and I'm afraid we're not going to know the answer to that question for a couple of years.

The answer to that question will depend on whether Iraqis can make a fist. Can they come together, the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites, around an idea of a new Iraq, choose a leadership and develop the kind of internal cohesion that will be required, as you rightly say, to really run a modern state and beat back all these challenges, and they will be many and consistent, I think, for the next couple of years. I don't know.

MANN: Forgive me for interrupting. You made a good point about their ability to embrace democracy and the rule of law, issues that were put before Arabs from many countries at what was supposed to be the Arab Summit, planned but never held, it collapsed. A bad sign for all concerned?

FRIEDMAN: Well, not really.

I think what's interesting about Iraq so far is that for all the talk of the potential for civil war there, it hasn't happened. For all the talk that these people can't make a fist, they have agreed on an interim constitution, albeit messy. Our constitutional process was pretty messy too.

And I think that the book is really still out, whether they can get it together. I think the disarray you're seeing in the rest of the Arab world, which was manifested by the failure of the Arab Summit to get its act together and even discuss reform, is a fallout from Iraq.

I think the Arab leaders are really of two minds on Iraq. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they are rooting for us to fail in Iraq so they won't be challenged by democracy and reform pressures. And on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, they're rooting for us to succeed because they know that without some kind of progressive model in their region and progressive consensus, they're never going to dig out of the hole that they're in. And on Sunday, I think they're probably just utterly baffled.

So I think the Arab Summit and its failure is really a reflection of that.

MANN: Is there a kind of a paradox here? The pressure for democratic reform in the Arab world is coming from the United States or it wouldn't be there, but because it's coming from the United States, it seems destined to be stymied because of its association with Washington.

FRIEDMAN: Well, that may be true, it may not be. I have a simple motto on this question, or one answer. Iraq. Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. What is our Iran policy? Well, it should be Iraq. What should our Syria policy be? Iraq. What should our Saudi policy be? Iraq. What should our Egypt policy be? Iraq. What should our regional democratization policy be? It should be Iraq.

That is to say if we make of Iraq in partnership with the Iraqi people some kind of just decent -- I don't even like to use the word democratic -- just have a decent, stable, forward-looking place, that will have a huge effect on the whole region. Everyone will draw their conclusions from it.

And if we make of Iraq a total mess, everyone will draw their conclusions from that.

So for me, this isn't about a debate. We're not going to win a debate with the Arab leaders about democracy and reform, when, where and how. All we can do is create a reality in their midst, hopefully a positive one, that they will have to respond to.

MANN: It could take decades.

FRIEDMAN: Oh, I'm in this for the long haul.

I was among the supporters of the war, not for WMD reasons but for these democracy reasons, and I supported this war for my great- grandchildren.

You know, the agent of change in the world, Jonathan, is something that takes 9 months and 21 years. It's called a generation. I want to see a generation of Iraqis grow up just under decent government, something maybe, you know, not quite as good as Turkey, but better than Putin's Russia. I'd love to see that. That give me 9 months and 21 years of that, and I'll begin to give you a different Middle East.

MANN: Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the "New York Times," and with us this weekend on "Straddling the Fence." Thanks so much for talking with us.

FRIEDMAN: A pleasure -- Jon.

MANN: That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. And be sure to join us for Thomas Friedman's documentary. Once again, it's called "Straddling the Fence," and it's airing this weekend on CNN. For now, the news continues.



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