Friedman’s Curse

On December 16, 2016, The Washington Post and The New York Times as well as other credible news outlets reported that Mr. David Freidman had been nominated by the president-elect to replace Mr. Dan Shapiro at his ambassadorial post in Israel. I suggest that the appointment of Mr. Friedman be viewed as likely detrimental to the American interests in Israel and the broader American interests in that troubled region during these particularly tumultuous times. Mr. Friedman’s predecessors Mr. Shapiro and before him Mr. Martin Indyk, proved themselves aptly qualified to that post of immense complexity and sensitivity, a post that requires a well-thought out execution of the President’s foreign policy and first and foremost to serve the interests of the United State by implementing a balanced approach. Although Mr. Friedman is a Jew, like his predecessors, it is my opinion that based on widely published information in credible news sources such as those mentioned above, Mr. Friedman’s ability to place the interests of the United States at the forefront of his mission is potentially handicapped unlike his predecessors whose Jewishness remained strictly a private matter.

David Friedman, a New York attorney who had been one of Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers and represented the president-elect in some legal proceedings holds extreme right-wing opinions regarding the legitimacy of Jewish settlements across the West Bank and disclosed his sympathy towards an annexation of some areas thereof by Israel. Of course, his devotion to the Jewish faith is not, and should not be, a credible reason why he should not be confirmed to that post. But there are other reasons of significant importance.

Friedman, a staunch Republican, is also the president of the American Friends of Bet El Institution that supports the Jewish settlement at Bet El situated at the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Ramallah. He is known for his venomous attacks on members of the J-Street organization who are committed to the promotion of a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians, equating them to Jewish “Capos” (as synonymous to traitors) in Nazi concentration camps. Reportedly, in response to questions he said that he will work “tirelessly to strengthen the unbreakable bond between” the US and Israel. He went on to say that he is looking “forward to doing this from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem”.

Being an attorney who must be aware of the power of the spoken word, it appears that Mr. Friedman is purposefully oblivious of the fact that with regards to the relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem both Mr. Trump’s predecessors in office, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and George W. Bush, a Republican, promised to do just that however viewed such a move as being at odds with some broader important region-wide American interests. Suffice it to say that, as important Israel may view itself to American interests, other vital American concerns include its relations with Turkey, a member-nation of NATO whose president Erdogan is a vocal supporter of the Palestinians, the Kingdom of Jordan – whose King Abdulla considers himself as Guardian of the Al-Aksa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, Egypt – the largest Arab country and of course Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates whose importance is self-explanatory. Some of these governments, and most of all around the globe who maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, established embassies in Tel Aviv or in cities within the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. None recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The US maintains a consular office in Jerusalem.

Although there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the writer strongly believes that Jerusalem is indeed the rightful capital city of the State of Israel and unequivocally supports the relocation of the US embassy to Israel’s capital city, however, such a move must be tied to a resolution of the jurisdictional status of Jerusalem as well as of the entire West Bank. It should be noted that the legitimacy of the annexation by Israel of the eastern (Arab) boroughs of Jerusalem, formerly under Jordanian rule, into the Greater Jerusalem following the Six-Days War of 1967 has not been recognized by the United Nations, nor by any foreign government, including Israel’s allies such as the US and most of the European Union, and that the Palestinian Authority considers East Jerusalem (“Al Quds”) as its future capital. Furthermore, the majority of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who were granted Israeli ID cards upon annexation of their boroughs, refrain from participation in the municipal elections and do not recognize the Jewish Mayor of Jerusalem as their municipal official. The annexation of Jerusalem is indeed a complex matter.

All Israeli governments to date spared no effort to delegitimize the Palestinian Authority’s claim and barred the Palestinian Authority from establishing offices in east Jerusalem. But such efforts nearly always produced a negative backlash. Thus, it follows that at least until America’s allies in the region, in Europe and elsewhere acquiesce, any talk of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem must be viewed as populistic at best. In the public arena Mr. Trump is not known for a thoughtful approach and is generally viewed as unpredictable thus he may elect to take action contrary to long-standing American positions and broader interests in order to fulfill a promise. Perhaps such a move will fit the impression of Mr. Trump’s overall right-wing approach and produce some short-term gains but in my view will prove catastrophic to American interests in the long run.

But significantly more important, and of a potential disastrous impact, are reports indicating that the ambassador-designate supports an aggressive expansion of Jewish settlements across the West Bank and the annexation by Israel of “parts of the West bank” although the reports suggest that Mr. Friedman did not elaborate to which parts of the West Bank he referred to. I presume that his ambassadorial duties will include interactions with the entire Israeli political spectrum some of which are opposed to any annexation by Israel of any parts of the West Bank as contrary to the “Two State Solution”. If not for any other reason, at least to develop a credible understanding of the Israeli political currents. If he plans to ignore those who oppose annexation or those who promote a “Two State Solution” he will simply betray his mission and worst, he will not be able to fully understand the Israeli realm and inform the president.  In this context it should be noted that President George W. Bush formulated in general terms the “Two State Solution” in his Road Map speech. This approach remains the official American policy objective to date. So unless the president-elect plans to alter this foreign policy objective, Mr. Freidman’s advocacy on behalf of expansion of Jewish settlements may potentially be at odds with the White House.

To be sure, there is no denying that most Israeli citizens (Jews that is), as well many in the Jewish diaspora, recognize the deep historic and religious connections of the Jewish people to Ertez Yisrael in its entirety. However, a more pragmatic view recognizes the fact that the parts of Eretz Yisrael AKA “Yehuda” and Shomron” have been populated by Arabs for many generations. In fact, these portions of Eretz Yisrael are a home to nearly three million Palestinians that until 1967 the majority of whom were considered Jordanian subjects. Their present status is effectively state-less since the Palestinian Authority is only an autonomous entity which lacks some of the trappings of a sovereign state including its own currency – the Israeli Shekel is the currency that is used in most transactions. Their daily lives, commerce, security, access to public utilities and the ability to travel freely abroad and within the West Bank areas as well as other aspects, are tightly controlled by Israel’s military through the office of the civil affairs coordinator and are frequently subject to ordinances issued by the Israeli military.

There had been some preliminary suggestions that in return to the annexation by Israel of some parts of the West Bank that contain a bulk of Israeli settlements, some land that is currently situated within the pre-1967 borders of Israel will be offered to the Palestinians in return. I consider the subject of a potential “land swap” as outside the scope of this post but suffice it to say that the current political climate in Israel does not bode well for any swap of any land. To the contrary, some key members of the Israeli government maintain that any transfer of any parts of Eretz Yisrael to any foreign entity is contrary to the premise that Eretz Yisrael in its entirety is a divinely promised Jewish territory and that they are the rightful owners of every dunam (about a quarter acre in area) regardless of any post-biblical history. They view the consequences of the 1967 war as nothing short of a divinely ordained “liberation of the land”.

Mr. Friedman’s predecessors, Masers Shapiro and Indyk, showed a clear understanding of the political realm in Israel. Moreover, they possess a deep understanding of America’s interests in the region and around the globe. Their actions while occupying the Ambassador’s office were consistent with that understanding and above all, they adhered to a well-balanced approach that refrained from needlessly antagonizing America’s friends and foes alike.

Finally, it is safe to assume that Mr. Freidman’s appointment will be warmly welcomed by the right-wing government, by the settlers and by all those who believe that all of Ertetz Yisrael must be returned to Jewish hands. However, based on widely distributed news reports I am far from being convinced that Mr. Friedman’s actions will best serve America’s interests given his extreme-right almost religiously zealot pro-settlements personal views. As far as Israel is concerned, all those who are fearful of Israel’s becoming an apartheid state should be deeply worried. The appointment of Mr. Freidman may be a cornerstone of that prospect.

As a footnote I would like to add that no person who is not now, never had been and has no intention to be a citizen and a resident of Israel, who has never served in the IDF, whose family does not reside in Israel and whose family never paid the ultimate price in defending that country, has any moral right or authority to suggest that Israel should continue and shed the blood of its sons and daughters just to satisfy some extreme right views. It is easy to live in the relative safety and comfort of America, enjoy the vastly greater economic opportunities and advocate militant and extreme-right opinions knowingly that the personal price will be paid by others.

About the Author
Arie, a retired consulting engineer, had been born in Israel, served in the IDF and is a resident of Boston since 1978. lifelong interests include history of Israel (including the formerly Palestine) and US/Israel relations. Other interests include studies in philosophy and theology.