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David Friedman’s Embrace of the Occupation

Allan Brownfeld
December 20, 2016


by Allan C. Brownfeld

DURING THE PRESIDENTIAL campaign, Donald Trump took a strong stand against ISIS, which he pledged to defeat. Now he has announced his choice for ambassador to Israel, his bankruptcy attorney, David Friedman. Friedman has strong ties with Israel’s extreme rightwing and is a vocal opponent of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute. Instead, he wants Israel to annex the occupied territories, a position to the right even of Israel’s current rightwing government.

If Mr. Trump wants to defeat ISIS, he will harm his own goal by giving ISIS a recruiting tool. Hatred of the U.S. will increase if the Arab world comes to believe that the U.S. Is abandoning the Palestinians, which would be a reversal of U.S. policy, which has had bipartisan support ever since Israel began its occupation after the 1967 war.

This was made clear last February by King Abdullah II of Jordan, who told the Munich Security Conference that until the Israel-Palestine conflict is resolved, ISIS cannot be defeated. He declared: “Left unresolved, the Palestine-Israel conflict will become a religious conflict of global dimension.”

King Abdullah noted that the “festering injustice” of the unresolved conflict “continues to be exploited by ISIS . . . It is only a matter of time before we may be faced by yet another war in Gaza or South Lebanon. This is why reaching a two-state solution should remain a priority for us all.”

DAVID FRIEDMAN, by any rational standard, is the wrong man to be U.S. Ambassador to Israel, particularly if Mr. Trump hopes to defeat ISIS. Consider his record.

Friedman, who has no diplomatic experience, has said that he does not believe it would be illegal for Israel to annex the occupied West Bank, and he supports building new settlements there, which the U.S. has long condemned as illegitimate. Friedman has engaged in intemperate attacks upon those who disagree, particularly the vast majority of American Jews who support the creation of a Palestinian state. Writing in June, on the website of Arutz Sheva, an extreme Israeli media group, he compared the liberal American Jewish group J Street to “kapos,” the Jews who cooperated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. “They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction,” wrote Friedman. “. . . It’s hard to imagine anyone worse.” In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic, Friedman said of J Street and those American Jews who share its perspective, “They’re not Jewish and they’re not pro-Israel.”

Friedman is president of an American group set up to support Beit El, a settlement located east of the Palestinian city of Ramallah. The settlement has also received contributions from the foundation headed by Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Friedman writes a column for a far-right Israeli news site in which he has accused President Obama of “blatant antisemitism.” He refers to the occupied West Bank by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria, something no U.S. official has ever done. He has referred to the recognition of Jerusalem as “the indisputable capital of the Jewish people” as a holy battle, one that will be won by those who acknowledge Jerusalem as being “the holy capital of the Jewish people and only the Jewish people.”

In 2015, Friedman wrote an article praising the sentiment expressed by Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, who referred to war as “killing people and breaking things until the loser gives up and is destroyed.”

THE FRIEDMAN nomination has been applauded by settler groups in Israel and others in that country who oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. Mainstream Israelis and respected Jewish leaders in the U.S. take a far different view. Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said that in naming an ambassador with the hard-line views of Friedman, the Trump administration could end up undercutting the security of Israel and the U.S. and condemn “the Palestinians to further disenfranchisement and dispossession.”

In Levy’s view, “If an American ambassador stakes out positions that further embolden an already triumphalist settler elite, then that is likely to cause headaches for American national security interests across the region and even for Israel’s own security establishment. Especially an ambassador committed to the ill-advised relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer provided this assessment: “Everything an ambassador says and does has an impact on policy. Usually an ambassador implements policies set by the administration, but Friedman seems intent on forging his own stands.” Referring to Friedman’s comment in the official statement on his appointment, in which he expressed his intention to work “from the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem,” Kurtzer notes that, “The president hasn’t been sworn in yet, the Secretary of State hasn’t spoken about this, and he’s already talking about the policy he’s going to change. This is unheard of.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) declares that “Mr. Friedman’s views and comments about a two-state solution are not only a total break from decades of American and Israeli policy but are fundamentally out of step with the views of the majority of American Jews.” He noted that both AIPAC and J Street support a two-state solution.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that Friedman’s appointment “exacerbated” concerns that his movement, the largest denomination among American Jews, raised during the presidential campaign over statements by Friedman questioning the two-state solution. “Only a two-state solution will allow Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic,” states Jacobs, “while also addressing the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians. To our great concern, it appears that Mr. Friedman does not share this commitment.”

The New Israel Fund, which supports social justice groups in Israel, said that Friedman “stands for neither democracy nor the Jewish value of tsedek (Justice) that are so desperately needed in these times. He represents extreme fringe views that are at odds with most American Jews.”

It seems that David Friedman is not only a supporter of Israel’s right-wing but also has kind words for the leaders of Russia and Syria. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the director of T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights group, linked on Twitter to an article Friedman wrote a year ago praising Russia for its proactive involvement on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, in which Friedman suggested that Basher Assad’s remaining in power would be positive for Israel. “Oh look, new ambassador to Israel defends Putin and Assad,” she said.“Does anyone remember when U.S. Jews were protesting Soviets?”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, who was so bitterly attacked by Friedman, argues that, “As someone who has been a leading American friend of the settlement movement, who lacks any diplomatic or policy credentials. . . . Friedman should be beyond the pale for Senators considering who should represent the United States in Israel . . . It puts America’s reputation in the region and credibility around the world at risk. Senators should know that the majority of Jewish Americans oppose the views and the values this nominee represents.”

DAVID FRIEDMAN may be a good friend of Donald Trump’s and may have provided needed assistance in the case of bankrupt Atlantic City casinos. Perhaps he can be rewarded with an ambassadorship to a warm and pleasant Caribbean island. But to name to such a post a man with ties to Israel’s most extreme settler movement, who rejects the creation of a Palestinian state and labels the views of most American Jews the equivelant of support for Nazis, is to ignore the best interests of both Israel and the U.S.

It is not only Israel’s anti-democratic right wing that would benefit from Friedman’s appointment. It is also the leaders of ISIS and of Iran who would use his extreme views to stir further hatred of the U.S.

Donald Trump may not have given proper thought to the implications of his rash appointment. He should reconsider this unfortunate decision and, if he does not, the Senate should reject it. Common sense and concern for the future of the Middle East and our own interests in the region demand it.

Allan C. Brownfeld is publications editor for the American Council for Judaism, founded in 1942, and a nationally syndicated columnist.