Most US ambassadors around the world are classified as career Foreign Service Officers — in other words, State Department officials. The rest are designated “political appointees” and are handpicked by the president. Even among the latter, many, if not most, have some form of diplomatic or political experience relevant to their posting. A relatively small number are either personal friends or mega-donors, and these are usually posted to the more glamorous destinations like London, Rome and Paris. Tel Aviv, where the US embassy in Israel is currently situated, is less of an obvious posting for one of the president’s cronies.
It is not a given that David Friedman, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick as the next ambassador to Israel, will be confirmed in the position by Congress. If he is, however, he will not be the first Jewish ambassador, nor even the first Orthodox US ambassador to Israel — but he will be the first man sent by the American administration to this sensitive posting who has no relevant diplomatic experience whatsoever.
On the other hand, no-one can accuse Mr Friedman of not being well-acquainted with the country where he is about to serve. On the contrary, the 57-year-old has visited Israel countless times, owns a flat in Jerusalem’s upscale Talbiyeh neighbourhood and has donated large sums to various Israeli institutions, particularly to those in Jewish settlements across the Green Line. He even appears to have facilitated a $10,000 donation from Mr Trump to the Beit El settlement in 2003, according to Yaakov Katz, one of town’s founders.
Now that the horror — or the delight — over Mr Friedman’s appointment is beginning to subside, we can ask what it actually means, besides Mr Trump’s apparent propensity to dispense with diplomatic orthodoxies.
We can be pretty certain that Mr Friedman will not be delivering condemnations over the next building project in the West Bank and that he will be lobbying vigorously for the US to finally move its embassy to Jerusalem. However, an ambassador does not make policy and, in this day and age, governments have enough channels of communication to deliver messages over the ambassador’s head.
The Trump administration’s foreign policy will be decided in Washington by the new president and his chief advisers and cabinet members — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — assuming they all pass the confirmation hurdle. There are very few clues as to what policies these four men will adopt regarding Israel and its conflicts with its neighbours, aside from the fact that Mr Trump and former Generals Mattis and Flynn have all spoken out aggressively against militant Islam and Iran. Mr Trump has said all manner of things about Israel, all of them positive — including that he believes he can solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — but nothing has amounted to policy prescriptions.
General Mattis has said the US pays a price in the Arab world for its support of Israel, but did not indicate whether he thought this a price worth paying.
Mr Tillerson has no record whatsoever regarding Israel or the conflict but given his career as a senior executive in an energy corporation, will almost certainly be loath to begin his term in the State Department making radical policy changes in a volatile region.
It is too early to draw any conclusion from Mr Friedman’s likely appointment. Sure, it could indicate that the new administration is about to abandon the decades-long policy of favouring a two-state solution and its opposition to the settlements. Maybe the embassy staffers will soon start packing and look for new homes in Jerusalem. But it is just as likely that the new ambassador has simply been rewarded for decades of service to Mr Trump as his bankruptcy lawyer with a dream job. And once he is out of the way, actual policy will be made in Washington by the professionals.