At J Street, a Debate Over David Friedman’s Role

WASHINGTON – At J Street’s annual conference on Sunday, panelists differed on David Friedman’s role as President Donald Trump’s nominee for US Ambassador to Israel. Alon Pinkas, former Israeli Consul General to New York, asserted that despite the outspoken rhetoric, Friedman serving as Ambassador “means nothing.” Pinkas added, “He (Friedman) is not going to drive policy. He is going to do what he is being told. It is along the lines of the changing role of the Ambassador.”

However, Ilan Goldenberg, Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) and a former State Department official during the Obama Administration, emphasized that Friedman’s role could likely change in a Trump Presidency. “Trump seems to operate more based on terms of personal relationships and he has a personal relationship with Friedman. It is much tighter than the personal relationship he seems to have with Rex Tillerson so who is going to be driving policy is a little unclear.”

Pinkas had tough words for Friedman. “He is confusing two simple things. He is supposed to become the American Ambassador to Israel not the West Bank’s Ambassador to Washington. The sooner he realizes that he will be representing Bethesda and not Bet El the better for everyone,” the former Israeli senior diplomat said.

While some in the pro-Israel community have expressed concern with Trump for his hesitancy with moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and call for Netanyahu to “hold on settlements,” Brookings Fellow Khalid Elgindy stressed the dramatic change between Obama and Trump in their attitudes towards Palestinians. Pointing out that one of Obama’s first calls in office was to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is the “exact opposite” with Trump’s approach.

“We are now a month into this Administration and we (the U.S. government) have had no contact except through the functional level through the US Consulate General in Jerusalem and the CIA,” Elgindy said. “We have kind of gone back to the era where we deal with the Palestinian leadership on purely a utilitarian basis, mainly through the lens of security and day-to-day operations, but there isn’t a political relationship. That is a significant shift.”

Regarding increasing opposition among many liberals towards President Trump’s agenda, Pinkas urged the audience to disentangle how they view a Republicans actions on Middle East peace with their domestic agenda. “Progressives should have been happy with the Ronald Reagan peace plan and progressives in America were happy with the George H. W. Bush Madrid Conference. So you need to separate the Israel agenda from whatever feelings or political inclinations you have here,” Pinkas explained.

At the same time, Pinkas ruled out blame for Trump if a peace deal falls apart. “If there is a failure, it is 100% Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas’ fault. There is nothing Donald Trump can do that John Kerry or Bill Clinton didn’t try beforehand,” Pinkas noted.

Despite the cozy ties between Netanyahu and Trump during their first joint press conference this month, Goldenberg warned there are potential roadblocks between the parties. “Trump’s whole MO is what do we get out of the deal. This is the approach he takes to all of our other allies including very close allies from NATO and elsewhere,” the former Obama Administration official said. “The only country that thus far seems exempt from this pay your own share is Israel and in a scenario where the relationship starts to go bad between Netanyahu and Trump on a personal level, he feels embarrassed because a major initiative falls apart and something goes wrong,” Goldenberg added.

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