Friedman ‘not hopeful’ on peace prospects


Thomas L. Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, foreign affairs columnist for the Op-Ed Page of The New York Times, says he is “not hopeful” as he once was that progress can be made towards peace between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Friedman, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his Middle East reporting in Lebanon and Israel, offered his pessimistic view of the prospects for Mideast peace before a sellout audience as the featured lecturer at the Maryville University St. Louis Speakers Series last Tuesday, April 6, at Powell Symphony Hall.

Responding to a submitted audience question after his extensive remarks, which focused on the thesis of his latest book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — And How It Can Renew America” (Farrar Straus Giroux, $27.95), Friedman, who in 1989 had been very hopeful of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, said, “No, I am not hopeful. The Middle East has never been more atomized and divided.

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“Back in 1973, (then Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger could get agreement on disengagement after the Yom Kippur War by dealing with only three leaders: the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the Syrian President Hafez Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Each of those leaders could reach a deal and carry it out. Today, both Israel and the Palestinians under Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, have two incredibly fragmented coalitions. You have a Palestinian government, which is divided between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas, which controls Gaza, which cannot agree. Then you have Netanyahu’s fragile Kitchen Cabinet Coalition, which includes many factions that block much movement.”

Friedman, who had published recent columns in The New York Times expressing pessimism about Israel-Palestinian peace in the aftermath of the flap over the announcement of an additional 1,600 Jewish housing units in northern Jerusalem said, “Everyone already knows what the outlines of a final peace plan will look like. But right now, I don’t see it happening any time soon.”

Friedman’s formal presentation, which he delivered in a relaxed and freewheeling style, focused primarily on the positions taken in “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” which advocates a “Green Revolution” as absolutely essential in solving the current and long term economic crises. “This book came out just before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the start of the current economic meltdown,” he explained. “The idea of an Environmental Revolution, the creation of an environment that is both green and sustainable and turning around the national and global economies are not two stories. They are one story. The cure for the financial collapse is directly related to a successful and sustainable Green Revolution.”

Friedman said that the world faces twin challenges from “two of the most impersonal forces on the planet: the market and Mother Nature. The years 2008-2009 were the years that both the market and Mother Nature said, ‘Enough! What we have been doing is unsustainable. This is your warning.'”

To drive home his point, Friedman said, “It is not a coincidence that we had the meltdowns of Citibank, the national economy of Iceland and the near extinction of the polar bear because of the melting polar ice cap all at the same time. Both the economic and the environmental decisions that have been made are based on the same fancy but faulty accounting. We were building more and more stuff to sell to China, which would lend money back to us by buying our Treasury bills. That was the loop we have been in economically. We massively underestimated the risk, we privatized the gains and socialized the losses resulting from these policies.

“And we have been doing the same thing regarding Mother Nature. We have taken a situational approach, rather than a sustainable approach. Situational economic decisions caused us to let subprime mortgages go wild. Situational values caused us to say it was okay to cut down a rain forest for the short-term gain of planting sugar cane. If we used sustainable values, we would not have been so reckless.”

Friedman said that the generation of the Great Depression and World War II, called “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw, “based their decisions on sustainable values. Along came the ‘Me Generation,’ which did not follow those values. We need to get back to sustainable values. Mother Nature cannot be persuaded by politics or ‘spun’ to fit our story. We need to recall that slogan, ‘Do not mess with Mother Nature.'”

Friedman said that regarding the issue of “global warming” or “climate change” he is somewhere in between former Vice President Al Gore’s position and more centrist positions. “But I am like (former Vice President) Dick Cheney was on the possibility that if there was even a 1 percent chance that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, it was important to prevent him from using them. And I feel that if there is even a 1 percent chance that we face an environmental catastrophe due to climate chance, then we must do all we can to prevent it from happening.”

Regarding those who question whether climate change is a real threat, Friedman said. “It’s not just a bunch of extreme Al Gore stuff. Our global temperature is going up 2 or 3 degrees Fahrenheit a year since the Industrial Revolution. If you think this is no big deal, think about a person whose body temperature goes from 98 to 102, who becomes very sick, or at 106, who will go to intensive care. What is true for a person is true for the world.”

Friedman, who has written about the global economy in such previous books as “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” and “The World is Flat,” said that the U.S. must become the world’s leader in the Environmental Revolution, just as it has been in the Information Revolution.

“Recently I saw a billboard which really got me angry,” Friedman said, showing a slide of an advertisement for a South African Daumler dealer which boasted, “German engineering. Swiss innovation. American nothing.” He added, “This ad really gets me angry. Our country is exploding with innovations, at our universities and from the ground up.”

Freidman stressed that he did not want to leave the audience with a pessimistic view. A commitment to “sustainable values” in tackling both climate change, overpopulation and the economy “are challenges that can be overcome. As a respected colleague once said when asked if we have time, answered. Yes, we have time. Starting now!”