Trump’s choice for Israel envoy likely to be resisted

Sunday 25/12/2016
A photo provided by Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP, shows David Friedman,
US President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel. (AP)

It has often been said that US President-elect Donald Trump values loyalty. This seems ap­parent in his choice for US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who handled Trump’s bankruptcy cases involving ill-fated casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The problem of this fealty to loyalty is that it can result in an appoint­ment of someone who is unsuited for a highly sensitive position.
Friedman is that type of person. Although he understands Israeli cul­ture and is reportedly a fluent speak­er of Hebrew, he clearly favours only the extreme side of the Israeli polity — the right-wing/settler community. Not surprisingly, Friedman’s ideol­ogy runs counter to a two-state so­lution to the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict that has been the hallmark of US policy for several decades.
Friedman is the president of American Friends of Bet El Institu­tions, a group that helps fund a ma­jor settlement in the West Bank. Not only is he a devotee of settlements, calling them “legal” as opposed to the current US characterisation as “obstacles to peace”, he also es­pouses the idea of a one-state solu­tion to the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict in which Israel simply annexes the West Bank.
On the delicate issue of Jerusalem and the location of the US embassy, Friedman bucks many decades of US policy. After Trump announced his nomination as ambassador to Israel, Friedman issued a statement saying he looks forward to serving in the position “from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem”.
The United States has maintained its embassy in Tel Aviv since Israel’s founding because the final status of Jerusalem remains unresolved. Be­cause of religious sensitivities, mov­ing the embassy before a peace deal is reached could cause a major back­lash from Muslims in the Middle East and beyond. For this reason, every US president has asked Con­gress for a national security waiver whenever Congress has passed leg­islation to move the embassy to Je­rusalem.
Some of Friedman’s harshest crit­ics have come from the American- Jewish community, which is far from monolithic. Although Fried­man has his share of advocates among supporters of the settler community, more mainstream and liberal American Jews see him as an extremist.
Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, a pro- Israel and pro-peace Jewish lobby­ing organisation, called Friedman’s appointment “reckless” and urged US senators to vote against the nom­ination because of Friedman’s lack of diplomatic and policy experience and his friendship with the “settle­ment movement”.
Friedman has not been shy about answering his critics with harsh words. He has called some of his American-Jewish detractors “ka­pos” — referring to Jews who coop­erated with the Nazis as guards in the concentration camps.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle Friedman will face will be officials in the Pentagon and the US State De­partment who will see his policies as not only undermining US standing in the Middle East but potentially putting US troops in danger.
There is likely to be strong push­back to Friedman’s positions by long-standing officials in both bu­reaucracies. Friedman probably ex­pects this opposition and has been highly critical of the State Depart­ment, which he has called an insti­tution with “a 100-year history of anti-Semitism”. He undoubtedly hopes Trump will back him in his fights with the State Department and will shift American policy to his pro-settler views.
It will soon dawn on Trump, how­ever, that to fulfil his stated goal of wanting to bring about an Israeli- Palestinian peace deal, he would need to pursue a more even-handed policy than what Friedman is advo­cating. No Palestinian official would go to the negotiating table presented with a fait accompli, such as US en­dorsement of Israeli annexation of the West Bank, which only the ex­treme right wing in Israel is advocat­ing.
As an admirer of “tough” US gen­erals, several of whom, now retired, he has nominated for key positions, including secretary of Defense, Trump may hesitate in endorsing Friedman’s positions. These former and current generals are likely to explain to Trump the consequences of such actions and the president-elect, who has touted his support for the military, would not want to be seen putting American soldiers in harm’s way by pursuing such lop­sided policies.
How this translates into actual policy is difficult to predict. Al­though Trump is not likely to push for Friedman’s extreme views given the pushback he will encounter, neither is he likely to press Israel to make concessions necessary to strike a deal. The right wing in Is­rael is praising his presidency even before it has begun and Trump has a penchant not to criticise those who flatter him.
This means that the Israeli-Pal­estinian situation will remain stuck in second gear until another serious incident or series of incidents occur that may compel Trump to act. The Friedman nomination, however, does not inspire confidence that Trump has any serious peace initia­tive in mind.