If Trump runs with Friedman’s ideas, we are in for a rough 2017

The president-elect could not have found a more one-sided, ideologically-driven choice for his ambassador to Israel

December 23, 2016 13:46

Perhaps Donald Trump has not fully understood the job title  Ambassador of the United States to Israel. The key words here are of and to. Then again, perhaps he means to redefine it, along with the job description. Everything about ambassador nominee David Friedman suggests the job will be Trumps Ambassador for Israels Right. 

The president-elect could not have chosen a more one-sided, ideologically-driven person. It is difficult to envisage Mr Friedman promoting the diplomatic aims of his country as stated on the US Embassy to Israel’s website, which include “an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people, alongside the Jewish State of Israel”.

Mr Friedman’s politics are to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu and seem closer to those of the most ardent West Bank settlers. Missing from his psyche seems to be any sympathy for the Palestinians. Reading his articles for the pro-settler Arutz Sheva website, it’s clear he believes that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace, and that even annexing the West Bank would not compromise Israel’s democratic character.

Elsewhere he has described President Barack Obama as an “antisemite” for failing to call out Palestinian incitements to violence, and labelled the liberal Jewish American lobbyists at J Street as “worse than Kapos”.

If the appointment is confirmed by the Senate, it will embolden those to the right of Mr Netanyahu in his government and weaken the Prime Minister’s ability to constrain some of the wilder elements in Cabinet.

It will also boost not only the settler movement but the more violent elements within the Palestinian leadership, who will call ever more loudly for the third intifada. They may well be heeded by a population that has given up on a non-existent “peace process”. This is a risk Mr Friedman thinks worth taking, and anyway he wants to undermine whatever shreds of credibility President Abbas has left. Earlier this year, he wrote that the US should withhold funds from the PA until there is complete financial transparency: “Even if Abbas threatens 100 intifadas, call his bluff. This cycle must end.”

Some of Mr Friedman’s ideas are less controversial within mainstream American political thinking. For example, he is a strong opponent of BDS activists, calling them antisemitic and advocating diplomatic and legal action to thwart them. He also wants the Trump administration to “investigate coordinated attempts on college campuses to intimidate students who support Israel”. He supports direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians “without pre-conditions” but, in an ominous warning for the chancelleries of Europe, says a Trump administration “will oppose all Palestinian, European and other efforts to bypass direct negotiations between parties in favour of an imposed settlement. Any solutions imposed on Israel by outside parties, including by the United Nations Security Council, should be opposed.”

The headline-grabbing call to move the US embassy to “Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem” (where he owns a home) is actually one of the less ground-breaking proposals. Republicans have long sought to do this and the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 requires it. However, presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama preferred not to open that potential Pandora’s box.

The real story is not so much Mr Friedman’s opinions, but how much they might affect President Trump’s policies. The ambassador’s job is important, but is some way down the food chain of statecraft. This is not to diminish the potential for informing policy as it makes its way up and down that chain, but decisions on moving embassies, cutting funds, supporting talks, and even something as seemingly low level as actually visiting a settlement, are made in Washington, not Tel Aviv.

That said, Mr Friedman was on the Trump foreign policy advisory team and, as a friend of many years’ standing, may have more access to the president than previous incumbents. That may be partially down to how seriously President Trump takes the issue, and it’s likely Israel will be low down on the list of priorities.

If the new American administration does indeed enact policies which embrace the ideology of a supporter of the settlements and the rhetoric of a presidential campaign, then diplomacy and, more importantly, Israel and Palestine, are in for a rough 2017.


Tim Marshall is a best selling author and former Sky News diplomatic editor

December 23, 2016 13:46

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive