by Allan Brownfeld
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP’S selection to be U.S. ambassador to Israel is his own bankruptcy lawyer, who has no diplomatic experience of any kind. David Friedman is a vigorous opponent of the creation of a Palestinian state and rejects the two-state policy as a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which has been the official basis of U.S. policy under both Democrats and Republicans for decades. Friedman has close ties to Israel’s rightwing settlement movement, and served as a commentator for Arutz Sheva, a settler media network. He was president of American Friends of Beit El Institutions, which supports the Beit El settlement near Ramallah, which is viewed as in violation of international law by both the U.N. and the U.S.
During the presidential campaign, Friedman said that Donald Trump would be “the most pro-Israel candidate this nation had ever seen.” He talked at length about his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state and went so far as to advocate Israeli annexation of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. He talked repeatedly of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
His intemperate language shows how unsuitable he would be as ambassador. He has charged former President Barack Obama with “blatant antisemitism.” He has many times expressed vitriolic contempt for the overwhelming majority of American Jews who disagree with him. He referred to J Street, which promotes a two-state solution and opposes settlements in the occupied territories, as “worse than kapos” (Jews who assisted Nazis in concentration camps during World War ll). When challenged about this, Friedman doubled down: “Are J Street supporters as bad as kapos? The answer is actually no. They are far worse than kapos. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas — it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”
IF PRESIDENT TRUMP thinks that appointing Friedman to this position makes him “pro-Israel” or will endear him to American Jews, he is seriously mistaken. Only Israel’s extreme right is pleased with this appointment, and only a handful of its supporters in the U.S. share their views.
Writing in the the Forward, Peter Beinart, a contributing editor, points out that when Israel proclaims itself “the one true democracy in the Middle East,” it is not referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. “In the West Bank,” Beinart writes, “. . . it’s not a democracy at all. It’s not a democracy because Palestinians — who comprise the vast majority of the West Bank’s inhabitants — cannot vote for the government that controls their lives . . . If Israel really were a democracy in the West Bank , and millions of West Bank Palestinians could vote in Israeli elections, Netanyahu wouldn’t be Israel’s prime minister.”
Some Jewish organizations that have never before opposed anyone named to be U.S. ambassador to Israel are now engaged in a campaign to block Friedman from being approved. These groups include Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, the New Israel Fund and Jewish Voice for Peace. Daniel Sokatch, who heads the New Israel Fund, which advocates for civil rights in Israel, said that Friedman holds views directly in opposition to the organization’s values of tolerance and mutual respect: “Here’s a person with no diplomatic experience, who’s been put in a position to be the ambassador to one of our most important allies and who holds extreme views. It’s like throwing a lighted match into a tinder box.”
In Israel itself, Friedman’s views are supported by the militant rightwing settler movement, by not by most Israelis. The settlement policy Friedman embraces has been rejected by two former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, Avraham Shalom and Carmi Gillon, who call it “a brutal occupation force” that is “making the lives of millions unbearable.” Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned, “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic. If the bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, this will be an apartheid state.” The respected Israeli author Bernard Avishai notes, “Mr. Trump has heated up the Jewish culture wars and, inadvertently or otherwise, advanced fanaticism. His incoming national security team is made up of people who purport to be realists, so here are the facts: Safeguard American interests and, as a byproduct, you strengthen Israeli democracy; Israeli advocates of Greater Israel, and their American allies, subvert both.”
To genuinely help Israel and advance peace, it is essential that we speak truthfully and realistically about the situation we face. Brent Scowctoft, who served as national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and Thomas Pickering, former undersecretary of state, and ambassador to Israel and to the United Nations, provide this assessment: “Support for Israeli-Palestinian peace predicated on an Israeli withdrawal to a border based on the 1967 lines and opposition to Israeli civilian settlements in occupied territories have been longstanding bipartisan principles of U.S. policy . . . We believe that a rejection of peace and the promotion of settlements are also bad for Israel. If we lose the two-state option, then we may well lose the ability to base the U.S.-Israel relationship on shared values. The permanent disenfranchisement of millions of people on an ethnic-national basis . . . does not conform with American values. This is not something to be taken lightly . . . We would hope that when it comes to weighing the alternatives, our new leaders will come to see the wisdom in advancing the only viable option for peace: a sovereign and contiguous Palestine alongside a secure and democratic Israel . . .”
Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador Israel and executive vice president of the Brookings Institution, declares that “If Mr. Trump . . . moved the embassy to Jerusalem without simultaneously making efforts to jump-start the peace talks, it would likely incite an explosion of anger among Palestinians and serve as a rallying cry for Islamic extremism from Tehran to Raqqa, Syria. American embassies might well become targets of violent demonstrations. Stoked by Hamas, confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis could erupt in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Arab and Muslim leaders would most likely demand that Mr. Trump rescind the decision. And Mr. Trump’s laudable aspiration to be the ultimate peacemaker would evaporate. For someone who cares deeply about winning, this is a losing proposition.”
PRESIDENT TRUMP says that defeating ISIS is a top priority. To do so, he will need allies in the region, all of whom are Muslim. To anger the entire Muslim world by naming an ambassador to Israel who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and urges Israel to annex the territories it now occupies, is acting against U.S. self-interest — and also against the long-run best interests of Israel. Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which Friedman supports, would inflame tension in the region and in the entire Muslim world. Palestinian leaders say they would view this as a “declaration of war.” Such a move, they say, would cause them to revoke their recognition of Israel and bring the Oslo peace process to an end. This would not only make it far more difficult, if not impossible, to defeat ISIS, but would serve as a recruiting tool for terrorists. It would give ISIS the “religious war” it is so eager to proclaim.
If President Trump wants to reward his friend David Friedman, he can name him ambassador to a calm and pleasant Caribbean island or some other peaceful part of the world. If Friedman’s name is not withdrawn by the White House, the Senate would be striking a blow against ISIS and in support of a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian question by rejecting him. By any standard, David Friedman is the wrong man for this job.
Allan C. Brownfeld is publications editor for the American Council for Judaism, founded in 1942, and a nationally syndicated columnist.