Will Trump’s Ambassador Box In Bibi From The Right?
President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday announced the nomination of David Friedman, a New York attorney and a darling of the Israeli right, as the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel. The question observers of the U.S. – Israel relationship are now pondering is whether Friedman will be ‘more Catholic than the Pope’ in regard to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
Friedman, head of the American Friends of Beit El, an Israeli settlement and local council located in the Binyamin Region of the West Bank, was named co-chairman of the “Israel Advisory Committee” to Trump in July. The Ambassador appointment is a dream come true for Friedman, who lobbied for the job since it became clear that Trump will occupy the Oval Office. On Election Day, Friedman told Jewish Insider that he hopes Trump “makes that choice” of appointing him.
Not everyone in the pro-Israel community is as enthusiastic. Allies of Netanyahu are concerned the new U.S. Ambassador might attempt to box in the Prime Minister from the right by teaming up with leaders such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Bayit Yehudi Party, who recently called for the abandonment of the two-state solution after Trump’s win.
In a policy paper released six days prior to the election, Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, a Trump Organization lawyer, recommended that Trump oppose the creation of a Palestinian state that forbids the presence of Christian or Jewish citizens, or that discriminates against people on the basis of religion, and not to pressure Israel to withdraw to borders “that make attacks and conflict more likely. Additionally, even before negotiations take place between the two sides, the U.S. should recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state and move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.”
“Friedman might make policies more than most Ambassadors would if Trump would delegate it to him and take a more hands-off approach, which he seems to indicate he wants to do,” said Professor Brent Sasley, calling the pick ‘dangerous.’ “People like Friedman, and some of the other people in Netanyahu’s government, might push him on some of these issues like Jerusalem, settlements, or annexation of the West Bank that would make things very uncomfortable for Netanyahu. He could feel pushed and boxed-in.”
In a statement on Thursday, Friedman said he is looking forward to representing the U.S. “from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
According to former ADL National Director Abe Foxman, the pick is significant given that Friedman has a longstanding close relationship with Trump, also serving as Trump’s “public voice” and advocate on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, “the bad news may be that he has espoused publicly positions which may be to the right of the Israeli society and the current Israeli government position on a two-state solution,” said Foxman.
Sasley explained to Jewish Insider that Friedman’s loyalty and commitment to changing longstanding U.S. policy in the region are likely the reason Trump based his decision upon. Trump “chooses people who are very loyal or controllable and therefore thinks that they will be better for him rather than those with policy-making experience, or he picks people who he thinks shares some vague commitment of shaking things up and completely changing things,” he asserted. “I think the Friedman pick fits into that. He fits in very nicely to what has become the real right wing of the American Jewish pro-Israel community.”
Trump suggested that the appointment, coming days after his pick of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, enforces his commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. “The bond between Israel and the United States runs deep, and I will ensure there is no daylight between us when I’m President,” Trump said in a statement. “As the United States’ Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman will maintain the special relationship between our two countries. He has been a long-time friend and trusted advisor to me. His strong relationships in Israel will form the foundation of his diplomatic mission and be a tremendous asset to our country as we strengthen the ties with our allies and strive for peace in the Middle East.”
J Street and the Union for Reform Judaism criticized the appointment from a policy standpoint. “This nomination is reckless, putting America’s reputation in the region and credibility around the world at risk,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement.
URJ’s Rabbi Rick Jacobs said in a statement that the great concern is that Friedman doesn’t share the commitment of a majority of Americans for a two-state solution. “Mr. Friedman’s personal connection to and support of a number of organizations committed to building additional settlements in the West Bank certainly suggests that he will not be an advocate for a two-state solution,” he stated.
The pick is clearly designed to “send a signal that there will be a change in tone, style and perhaps substance in the US-Israeli relationship from the Obama administration,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst and Vice President for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The key question is “how much influence will he actually exert on the president and in the circle of his national security advisers.”
“Ambassadors usually don’t have much” influence, Miller told Jewish Insider. “In fact, if the past several Administrations are any indication, the Ambassador is often bypassed as presidents and Israeli PM’s create higher level channels of communication.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition, while staying silent on the appointment of Tillerson, lauded the nomination of Friedman as sending a powerful signal of the next administration’s Israel policy.
“The selection of Mr. David Friedman to serve as United States Ambassador to Israel sends a powerful signal to the Jewish community and the State of Israel that President-elect Trump’s administration will strengthen the bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region,” RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said in a statement. “We look forward to working with David and the entire Trump administration to cripple Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons through new and strengthened sanctions, move the U.S. embassy to the eternal capital of Israel, Jerusalem, and repair relations with our greatest ally in the Middle East that have eroded over the last eight years.”
The NJDC raised concern about Friedman’s lack of experience in the diplomatic field. “Trump must stand for a strong US-Israel relationship and take it seriously,” the Jewish Democratic group said in a statement on Twitter. “Hasn’t ever been a less experienced pick for US Ambassador to Israel.