Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have been excused for dancing a jig in Friday morning’s wee hours when US President-elect Donald Trump announced his long-time bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman as nominee for Washington’s next ambassador to Israel.
For Friedman is the anti-Martin Indyk, the anti-Daniel Kurtzer, two former Jewish ambassadors to Israel who often obsessed about the settlements.
Kurtzer and Indyk – when they served as ambassadors and when they left to take other positions – saw construction anywhere beyond the Green Line as the main hurdle to Mideast peace.
Friedman – the president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions – takes a completely opposing view.
Current Ambassador Dan Shapiro has faithfully toed the Obama administration’s line opposing the settlements, but never with the same degree of vehemence as Kurtzer, or especially as Indyk. And Indyk was no bit-player in the administration’s Mideast policy. He served as John Kerry’s special envoy in 2013 and 2014 when the US secretary of state launched his failed attempt to solve the Mideast conflict in nine months.
During that period, and after, Indyk – who was ambassador here twice, once when Netanyahu was prime minister from 1995 to 1997, and again briefly during the reigns of Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon from 2000 to 2001 – never hid his distaste for Netanyahu and his policies.
Now comes Friedman, a man who questions whether a two-state solution is realistic, who favors construction in the settlements, who wants to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and who detests J Street. Going from Indyk as a central interlocutor to Friedman, Netanyahu must feel as if has died and gone to heaven.
It is not that Friedman will be setting policy. There is a big difference between the power to set policy – which is Trump’s – and influence. But Friedman will definitely have influence.
As Trump’s trusted bankruptcy lawyer, Friedman is undeniably close to the president- elect and will be able to whisper into his ear. And what he will whisper is sure to be quite different from what some veteran hands in the State Department will be saying.
The left-wing J Street lobbying organization, predictably, decried the nomination, with its president Jeremy Ben-Ami posting on Twitter that Friedman “is anathema to values that underlie [the] US-Israel relationship,” and that the group will “fight this with all we’ve got.”
His anger is understandable, since Friedman wrote during the summer that J Street was worse than kapos, the Jews who turned fellow Jews over to the Nazis.
Writing on the Arutz Sheva website, Friedman said: “The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty, and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas – it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”
J Street’s influence and power over the last eight years flowed in large part from its closeness and access to US President Barack Obama and his advisers. That access will now be cut off, and the next president will hear more from people like Friedman than from people like Ben-Ami.
An argument has been made that Friedman’s appointment might make political life difficult for Netanyahu because, with a US ambassador to his right – closer to the worldview of Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett than to his own – he will no longer be able to make excuses to the Right as to why he is not building more in the settlements.
But given a choice between an ambassador who takes issue with any home built in any Jewish community beyond the Green Line – be it east Jerusalem, Gush Etzion or Yitzhar – and one who will not send cables to Washington advocating a harsh State Department response for every new home, it is safe to assume that Netanyahu prefers the latter.
It is easier for a prime minister to deal with domestic political problems than with full-blown international condemnation supported by Washington.
Jerusalem did not applaud the appointment earlier in the week of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as the next secretary of state. Not because of anything against Tillerson – nothing is known of his positions on Israel – but because so much was known and liked about the other candidates mentioned: Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton.
While there is no comparison between the power and importance of the secretary of state and that of ambassador to Israel, Friedman’s appointment provides some of the unswerving support for the current government’s policies that does not seem to be a major part of Tillerson’s thinking. Cause enough for Netanyahu to celebrate.