Trump’s choice for Israel envoy likely to be resisted
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.