4. David Friedman

The envoy who moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem

United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (photo credit: REUTERS)
United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Love him or hate him, pray for “four more years” or yearn for his impeachment, US President Donald Trump has more impact today on world events than probably anyone alive. By his word – or tweet – currencies rise and fall, tariffs are applied or removed, international agreements are entered into or abrogated, and – of course – embassies are moved.
Anyone, therefore, who has the trust and ear of the president wields considerable influence, and US Ambassador David Friedman – the heimishe Long Island lawyer-turned-diplomat son of a rabbi – has both.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, former Arkansas governor and US media personality Mike Huckabee was asked where Trump’s strong support for Israel comes from.
First, he said, it comes from his conviction that Israel is “our truly rightful ally and the most important one in the Middle East, because it most mirrors the US in its form of self-government and ability to have a democracy.”
And secondly, he said, it has to do with “the influence he has from all the people who surround him, both Christian and Jewish.”
Among the Jews, Huckabee first mentioned Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. Then he mentioned Friedman.
Friedman, according to Huckabee, ““is not just the ambassador, but one of his closest personal friends, who has been a great adviser and tremendous influence.”
That influence was clearly evident this year when Trump carried out a campaign promise that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all made and then did not keep – moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Friedman was a key driving force behind that move.
In an interview conducted because of scheduling issues in the US Embassy branch in Tel Aviv – with a view overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, not the Old City of Jerusalem, though there was a prominent picture of the capital in his office – Friedman said he was flattered by Huckabee’s characterization, but that he would leave it to Trump to describe their relationship.
He did say, however, that he has known the president for some 20 years, probably as long as anyone else in the administration, and that they “got a chance to know each other very well. I think we developed a significant mutual respect, and I think that’s really the core of the friendship.”
Friedman, who did not volunteer the particulars of his relationship with Trump but only offered them sparingly when asked specific questions, said he speaks to the president a “few times a month,” whenever “I think there’s something that I need to tell him, or that I think it would be beneficial for him to be aware of.”
That type of access to the most powerful person in the world translates into influence, and that influence is why Friedman is so high up this year on the Post’s annual list of influential Jews.
What follows are excerpts of an interview conducted with the ambassador in August.
• What is the source of Trump’s support for Israel?
I think it comes from a few different places. First, he came to his position on the basis of America First, doing what’s best for the United States. He sees the relationship between the United States and Israel as – among all the foreign relationships we have – being very much in the best interests of the United States.
And I think he can unpack that on all kinds of different levels. The relationship between the United States and Israel over the last generation has become far more reciprocal. When I was a kid, we’d all raise money for Israel, and view Israel as in desperate need of American help in all categories.
But now – and it’s hard for me to go into it in a public forum – Israel provides significant benefits to the United States, in terms of our homeland security and other forms of intelligence and military cooperation. So it’s a very important relationship to the United States in ways it hadn’t been a generation ago.
He also has great admiration for what Israel has accomplished in this neighborhood. You look at the neighborhood and you see Gaza and all its challenges; Lebanon, with the threat from Hezbollah; Syria, which is one of the great tragedies of the modern era. You see Jordan and Egypt.
And then you see Israel, smack in the middle, with a GDP per capita probably 10 times that of any of its neighbors, with all that it is able to do and produce, and I think he can’t help but have – no one can help but have – incredible respect and admiration for a country that’s able to succeed and thrive in such a challenging environment and neighborhood.
He sees that and recognizes it, and I think it speaks to him in terms of the Israeli model being so close to our own – the values, the goals, the desires, the objectives, the people – we have so much in common. I think he sees a kindred spirit in the State of Israel.
• You know Jews. We are a skeptical, insecure people. Even as strong as the president’s support is, there are those – and you’ve heard them – who say he is unpredictable, unreliable, and could easily turn on Israel tomorrow. How do you respond to that?
I don’t think it’s true... He’s far less controlled in his messaging than a traditional politician. But there is absolutely a method and a strategy to what he does and says, and I think he considers unpredictability to be a strategic asset.
I think he considers it important – certainly with those countries that we have issues with – that it’s best if they not be able to predict with certainty the path of the United States.
You can look at a daily graph of the stock market and see it goes up and down, but you can create a trend line that is very solid – notwithstanding the fluctuations from day to day. Similarly, I think the president’s trend line is very predictable, and I think it should not be a surprise to anyone where he stands on any issues.
He campaigned on moving the embassy to Jerusalem. He did it. He campaigned on fighting what he considered to be unfair trade deals. He’s doing it. He complained about the Paris Climate Accords. He addressed it. He complained about the JCPOA [Iran deal]. He ended it. He promised tax relief. He achieved it. You can kind of watch the daily fluctuations of commentary [from Trump], whether directly or on Twitter, but if you just look at the general directions that he promised to lead the country, he’s done exactly that. I think people get too caught up in the daily push-and-pull of political debate and sometimes miss the forest for the trees.
• The unpredictability is tactical?
I don’t think he’s been unpredictable. I think you can say that his tactics have been strategically unpredictable, but his policies have been completely predictable and consistent with his campaign promises.
• The president himself has said on a couple of occasions that the Jerusalem Embassy move is a bigger thing for Evangelicals than for Jews. Despite his strong support for Israel, Jews are among his strongest and most vocal critics in the States, and it is unlikely he will get more support in 2020 from the Jews than he did in 2016. Might the president ever reach a point where he has a James Baker moment and says, ‘Screw them, they don’t vote for us anyhow’?
No, because I don’t think he’s ever taken any political actions because he felt there was a political opportunity there with the Jewish community... He’s proceeding with a policy that he thinks is the best for America, not the best for Jews, or Christians, or Muslims, or anybody, any particular group. That’s what he thinks is best for America.
I think he welcomes all the political support he gets, but he’s not designing policy to placate any particular ethnic group. So I don’t think there will ever come a point where he’ll grow frustrated with any particular ethnic group, because in the first instance he’s not designing a policy to obtain their approval.
• Are you personally frustrated that American Jews don’t have more gratitude toward Trump for the Jerusalem [embassy] move, for the Iran deal withdrawal, for the change of tone toward Israel?
Jews are a diverse group. They always will be. We’re obviously capable as a people of getting it wrong; from the time we built the Golden Calf, right after the revelation at Sinai. We’ve gotten it wrong lots of times, but Jews have been fortunate to have a protector upstairs.
Again, I try – to the greatest extent possible – not to get into the weeds of Jewish debates, because they can just keep you busy all day long. We have lots and lots and lots of diverging points of view, and I disagree with many of them.
As a people, though, I think the Jewish people have much to be proud of, and one of the things they should be most proud of is how, notwithstanding the diversity and the deeply felt views that Jews of all stripes seem to have, there still does seem to be, on core issues, some level of cohesion. So I’m still optimistic about the ability of the Jewish people to rise above their differences. And Israel is, I think, the best example of a functioning yet diverse Jewish society.
• What does it say to you that Israeli Jews are much more supportive of Trump than American Jews?
I think it suggests that the president is far more pro-Israel than American Jews are giving him credit for, because – as between Israelis and American Jews – I think you have to defer to the Israelis to know what’s best for Israel. And given their support of the president, I think that says a lot about the president’s support for Israel. I believe that the president is the most pro-Israel president ever in office.
• There are people who say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has entered a Faustian bargain, that he’s embracing a very divisive president for short-term gain, and that this could come back in the long run and bite Israel because Trump will not be in power forever and Israel is increasingly being identified as a Republican, right-wing cause. According to this argument, if the Democrats win next time, or in 2024, then Israel will be in trouble.
With all due respect, I think that’s nonsense. No Israeli leader has ever not embraced the American president, whoever it was. There have been differences from time to time. But Israeli leaders do their best to keep those differences to a minimum.
Donald Trump is the president of the United States; the United States is the most important ally of the State of Israel; it’s also the richest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. There is no Israeli leader – Left, Right, or center – who would not embrace the relationship with Donald Trump. The idea that the prime minister of Israel – whoever he might be – has the luxury not to deal with the American president with respect and loyalty, to me just makes no sense at all.
• Do you think the Nation-State Law will impact support on Capitol Hill for Israel?
I hope it doesn’t. I don’t think it should.
• Were you asked to clarify it? Did the State Department ask you to look into it?
No. I speak with high-ranking members of the Israeli government every day. We talk about everything that’s going on every day. So obviously I’ve had discussions about this because this is a matter of topical interest. But I did that on my own. Nobody asked me to seek clarification.
• Was the law smart?
I’m not smart enough to know. I would never prejudge the decision by any democratically elected body. I would never assume that I know more than they do about how their own country should be governed.
• Why was the move of the embassy to Jerusalem so important for you?
I thought it was incredibly important for the president’s success. I think Clinton, Bush and Obama were such traditional politicians that they were able to promise to move the embassy and then not do it, without really damaging who they were, because – let’s face it – politicians make promises all the time and don’t keep them.
This president was voted into office because he was not a politician. That was perhaps one of his single most important attributes, because he was perceived as someone who would do what he said. So I thought that failing to do this would undermine one of the most important qualities of the president, and I think it would potentially have had an adverse impact on his ability to lead.
Secondarily, with regards to the message he was sending – this has been a national imperative for 25 years – the only reason to not have moved the embassy was because somehow you think those who opposed it would have the ability to somehow jeopardize national security.
I think for the president to adopt that course would be completely inconsistent with the idea of a strong America, which is at the core of our foreign policy: peace through strength.
If you don’t move the embassy, what you’re basically saying to a bunch of rogue actors in the region is, ‘We’re not going to do something that was overwhelmingly passed by both houses of Congress, reaffirmed by a vote of 91-0 just a year earlier – we’re not going to do that because we’re afraid of you.’ And I thought that was a terrible message to send.
In hindsight, I think that looking at how that decision has reverberated through the world – make no mistake, it’s reverberated into the Korean Peninsula, it’s reverberated through Iran, other places around the world – it has sent exactly the right signal to our friends and to our foes: that the United States can be trusted at its word; that the United States does not act out of fear but out of strength.
On a personal level, as someone who had his bar mitzvah in Jerusalem in 1971; as somebody who grew up in an observant home where I was taught every day to pray for the return to Jerusalem, for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, it of course has great personal significance as well.
But as important as tho
se personal feelings were, I tried not to, and I think I succeeded, allow them to influence my discussions with the president, because those are really not the reasons for the move – those are incidental benefits to someone who feels so strongly about the subject. But it is not the reason for America to act. So I tried to focus more on the foreign policy issues when speaking with the president about it.
• Are you surprised more countries haven’t followed suit now? There were two exceptions, Paraguay and Guatemala, but do you expect more countries to follow the US lead?
I continue to expect it to happen. I think there are a lot of countries that are really interested in it, and I would give it a little bit more time. I think we’ll see more embassies moved.
• Is the US lobbying for that? Are you pushing that, through your channels?
I’m not pushing it, but I can tell you that I’ve had discussions, not discussions that I’ve initiated, but I’ve had discussions with a number of countries who indicated to me that they’re thinking about it seriously, and that they’re going through their own internal processes now. I’ve had the benefit of these discussions just from people coming and raising them with me. I’m not out there to lobby.
• When is my grandkid’s passport going to say ‘Jerusalem, Israel’?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure. It’s on the list of things to address, and I think we’ll get to it in due course. There are a lot of issues that have to be addressed in light of updating our policies in light of the president’s decision, and I think you need to give us a little more time to get through them all.
• Is it because of the bureaucracy?
I don’t want to say that it’s just bureaucratic. I think there is thought involved. But I think it just takes time to go through these issues.
• I imagine moving the embassy was the highlight of your tenure here.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that that’s the case.
• So what was the low point?
The low point? I can’t point to anything specific, I have to really think it through. But I’ll give you a general point that’s recurred on several occasions: paying condolence calls on families of victims of terror. It has a profound effect upon me.
The most recent one is the one that stays in my mind, but there have been several others, including to the Druze community last summer – the two men who were killed protecting the Temple Mount. The suffering is extremely difficult to absorb.
Just last week, the man [Yotam Ovadia] who was stabbed to death [in Adam] was in the process of preparing a meal for his wife on Tu Be’av. He was his parents’ only son, and he had a sister with special needs who he was helping out. Now she needs someone to help take care of her. His two small children are now left without a father.
It’s that suffering, coupled with the inability of the Palestinian Authority to condemn the act and the continuing funding of terrorists and their families. It has a very significant effect on me, because not only is it sad, but it’s hard to see in that environment the light at the end of the tunnel.
I don’t think that represents the view of the Palestinian people. I actually think that there are a lot of good Palestinian people out there who don’t celebrate terrorists, but they’re being drowned out by those who do. And it is hard to see that type of inhumanity and not see the means of ending it. That’s certainly what we want to do. We want to bring an end to it.
• You have gone to a number of shivas (houses of mourning) for victims of terrorism. Why do you feel the need to do so?
What I have found, without exception, is when I go, the people who are suffering gain tremendous comfort from knowing that a representative of the United States cares enough to see them. So for some short moment in time, I am able to take people who are in tremendous pain and to relieve some tiny bit of their suffering. And that’s it – that’s the whole thing.
• Was this a policy you thought about before you came, that this is something you wanted to do? Or was it just kind of spontaneous?
It’s a spontaneous feeling of need. It’s not a policy; it has nothing to do with politics. I’m not in a position where I can just show up. People know that I’m coming. And then, someone says to me, do you want press, do you want media? I always say no, I’m not doing this for the exposure and it’s not a policy.
• You, Kushner and [Jason] Greenblatt are involved in formulating the US peace blueprint. Yet the Palestinian leadership makes no bones of their dislike for you personally, and won’t talk to you. So can you work on a blueprint when the other side sees you as persona non grata?
It is, to say the least, a challenge. But it’s been a challenge. We’re not the first ones who have encountered this kind of unhelpful behavior from the Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] turned down a great opportunity with Ehud Olmert; Arafat turned down a great opportunity with Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton; and Abbas squandered the opportunity with Obama, who I think was much more sympathetic to him than we are.
So this isn’t new, it’s new for us, but it’s not new for the region. What we are saying is that the Palestinian people deserve a better future and the Palestinian leadership will, whoever they may be, at some point be more responsive to the Palestinian people.
In the course of human events, leaders often are forced to be responsive to their people at the right moment, and we’re just hoping that we can achieve the right moment. We’re not going to give up. We’re not going to allow what we consider to be bad behavior to cause us to give up on the opportunity to help the Palestinian people achieve a better life, if we can.
• The Palestinian leadership has already ruled out the plan without seeing it. So what use is it rolling it out if you know they’re not going to accept it?
Well, what you just said itself – isn’t that ridiculous? That the Palestinian leaders ruled out a plan without seeing it? We’re going to hope that at some point – with someone – clarity and rationality will prevail.
The idea of rejecting a plan that you haven’t seen strikes me as being grossly irresponsible. You want to read it and tell us what you don’t like about it, by all means. You want to read it and say, “It’s not acceptable.” Sure, that’s your right. But to not know what’s in there, and to reject it out of hand, and to cause others within the leadership to refrain from having conversations because you don’t like something you haven’t read, just strikes me as being grossly irresponsible when you’re trying to lead a couple million people to a better future.
• Is there a plan to roll this out before the US midterm elections in November?
We’re going to roll it out at some point. I don’t think the midterm elections are the relevant point in time.
• The reason I mention the midterm elections is because I was told it might not be rolled out before then, because any plan is going to have to include concessions by both sides, and demands for concessions by Israel, for the president’s base, might not be something he wants to have before November.
Not a factor. There’s no timeline, but the politics are not a factor.
• Was there any quid pro quo for the Jerusalem embassy move, and because of the move there will be some kind of arrangement on Jerusalem, division of Jerusalem, in the plan?
I’m not going to talk about the plan, but at no point was the move of the embassy to Jerusalem designed to extract any concessions from Israel. There’s nothing we have in our back pocket that says, “Well, Israel, you’ve got to give up X, Y, and Z because the embassy was moved.” The embassy was moved to Jerusalem because the American people have, through their elected officials for the last 25 years, directed the president to do exactly that, and Donald Trump was the first president to do so. That’s the beginning and the end of the Jerusalem decision.
• A couple of weeks ago, there was a report that the Saudis told Abbas they would oppose any peace plan that doesn’t accept the Palestinian stance on Jerusalem and the refugees. How important for the plan to work is Saudi buy-in?
We want as much support as we can from the Arab neighbors, all of them. I don’t know that any one nation’s buy-in is a make-or-break situation. I would just say that as much support as we can [get] is always helpful and appreciated.
• Are you, as was reported, advising Israel not to push the US to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights?
No. Not at all. I think there was some fake news there.
• Would you recommend that, after recognizing Jerusalem, the US should now recognize Israeli sovereignty there?
I don’t think that the Golan Heights will ever be under any sovereignty other than Israel. It does not appear to have an indigenous population seeking independence, and obviously I couldn’t imagine rewarding the Syrian government with that type of a prize, given the type of ruthless dictatorship it is. Nor could I imagine exposing Israel to the type of security risk of losing the high ground, the Golan.
So I can’t envision a scenario where Israel doesn’t have sovereignty over the Golan Heights. I haven’t spent enough time thinking about the timing and the considerations of when to do it [US recognition of Israeli sovereignty], but that’s just because I haven’t done the work, not because I see anything about it which is controversial.
• Netanyahu has gone to Moscow three times this year, and has spoken to President Putin 10 times on the phone. Do you have any concerns that Israel might be getting a little too close to Russia, or how this could play in America or on Capitol Hill?
No. Russia views itself as a permanent fixture in Syria, and Israel has a serious enemy in Syria, which is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. And to deconflict and make sure the Russians are not accidentally or inadvertently brought into the battle requires a lot of hand-holding and discussions. I think those discussions between Israel and Russia are necessary, and I think we understand why they’re having them, and they’re not in competition with any US interest.
• Were you taken by surprise when President Trump said he wants to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani?
No, not at all.
• Did you know that was coming?
No, but I wasn’t surprised at all. The president’s approach is that he thinks it is in America’s interest for the president to have the ability to size up his adversaries.
I think he gains a lot from these types of meetings. I think he gained a lot from his meeting with Kim Jong-un. It’s a sign of strength.
When you have an $18 trillion economy and a $700 billion defense budget, you don’t have to worry about creating the wrong impression, that somehow you’re weak by meeting with a third-rate dictator. You can have that meeting, and if it goes well, [or if] it doesn’t go well, you walk away still the strongest country on Earth. I think he views this as an opportunity, and he doesn’t see the downside that others have seen in the past.
How about the concern that it gives Iran legitimacy, that to the same degree removing the sanctions under the nuclear deal let Rouhani off the ropes, this also lets him off the ropes to a certain extent?
If the sanctions remain in place and our policy remains the same, having the meeting is not going to fix Iran’s economy. It’s not going to change the situation on the ground, and it enables the president to size up our opponent and to make a better informed decision on how to go forward.
• What’s to be gained by it?
What’s to be gained by sitting and talking to someone? A lot. You really get an unfiltered view of how the person views the world, what the person’s willingness is to negotiate, what their flexibility is, whether they’re trustworthy. I mean, you can tell a lot about somebody in a short meeting.
Oren Oppenheim contributed to this report.