David Friedman talks Iran, annexation, diplomacy in 'Post' interview

#2: David Friedman

David Friedman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
David Friedman
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israel has never had a better friend in the White House than President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly over the last year.
And during a ceremony in May marking the first anniversary of the US Embassy move to the capital, Netanyahu added a twist to that well-worn sentence, saying about Ambassador David Friedman that, “there has never been a greater friend in Israel representing the US.”
There has also rarely been a US ambassador in this country who has had such influence over his administration or proven to be such a lightening rod, both because he is considered so close to Trump – a president loathed by some and loved by others – and because of his unabashedly pro-Israel sentiments.
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As a result, Trump’s former bankruptcy lawyer, who has been his ambassador for the last 2 ½ years and has been a key driver behind some of the president’s pro-Israel positions – such as the Jerusalem embassy move and the decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights – knows that he is going to get criticized whenever he opens his mouth.
No matter what he does and says, someone out there is going to take offense and slam him. Though this is not a situation he was used to in his previous life, Friedman told The Jerusalem Post in an interview in his official residence at the US Embassy’s annex on Agron Street – formerly the US consulate-general in Jerusalem – that it is something he has gotten used to.
“I decided early on that I have to be true to myself. I have to be able to live with my own decisions, live with my own conscience, and my wife and kids have to love and respect me – and that’s all it is,” he said. “And I have to have the support of the president. If I have all those things, everything else is just conversation.”
With that there is no arguing. Friedman is one of the few ambassadors with the ability to pick up the phone and get the president on the line when needed. That type of relationship is not just an asset for him personally, but helps advance the US-Israel alliance.
What follows are excerpts of the Post’s interview with Friedman in which he addresses many of the issues that come up in that seemingly endless “conversation.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before the election that the Trump peace plan will be released in a matter of days. Will it?
I’m fairly confident it will be rolled out in 2019. I don’t want to be held to a week or month, but we are close to the finish line.
Before a coalition is formed, or after?
We want to roll it out in an environment where there is a government that can respond to it... We would like to deal with a formed government, so they are in a position to react and respond and talk to us about it.
I think we will respect the Israeli democratic process through the coalition formation. If anybody chooses to speak to us, we will be as helpful as we can to that process…
The Yamina Party put out a map before the election of what it said was the plan. Was that accurate?
It was inaccurate… I don’t know where they came up with that map.
Why roll out the plan if the Palestinians have already said they will reject it?
I am not as pessimistic as you about the Palestinian reaction, though we certainly allow for that possibility.
I think the world is thirsting for a proposal that provides a realistic solution to this conflict that has been 100 years or more in the making, and we think we advance the cause of peace by laying out our views, even if they are not embraced immediately. I think every one of our views is defensible, and will provoke a discussion that will be helpful.
Some say there is an urgency to release the plan now to set a baseline in the eventuality that President Trump will not be re-elected.
We still have a long way to go in the Trump administration, hopefully even a longer way to go in a second term… We are not focusing at this juncture at getting something out before it is too late because we still have plenty of time.
Can Trump release it during his own campaign? Won’t that cause problems for his Evangelical base if the plan includes Israeli concessions?
It is a strong proposal that is good for America, Israel and the world… What we will propose will make Israel strong and safer, and it will be something that the entire pro-Israel community can embrace regardless of their religious persuasion.
Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Netanyahu has now said he will annex the Jordan Valley if re-elected. The US was silent. What is the US position on that?
We like to approach all these issues holistically, and hopefully we will have a chance to do so. In the interim, the statements made by the prime minister are ones we don’t see as being inconsistent with a political solution, and so we kind of held our tongue because there was really nothing that called for comment beyond what we said.
The US could have endorsed it, as it did with the Golan.
I would not read much into the fact that we didn’t. From our perspective, we want to deal with all these issues in the context of an overall resolution of the conflict, rather than piecemeal.
There has been talk in recent days that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem has cooled. As proof, people point to Trump not backing Netanyahu in this election to the degree he did in April; no full support of Jordan Valley annexation; talk about a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani; the firing of John Bolton; and allegations of Israeli spying on the White House. Are you worried about a cool breeze?
No, not at all. I can go through each one of those things and tell you why people have made more of it than there is.
[Regarding Rouhani:] The president made it very clear he would not meet him under circumstances where there was any [sanction] relief granted in advance as a concession for a meeting… The president feels that meeting with people is important in his role as commander in chief… The reality is that he is not going to lift sanctions before any meeting.
[Regarding Bolton:] There is a very, very deep bench within the White House and the state and defense departments that is pro-Israel. I know that John Bolton was a terrific national security adviser, but his successor will be terrific as well – and there are so many others who are pro-Israel, as well as the president himself. I think it is a mistake to read anything into that.
How about less enthusiastic support for Netanyahu from Trump this election?
The president’s comments prior to the election in regards to Netanyahu were obviously supportive – they were appropriately supportive. There are limits to which one should delve before an election; I think the president was as supportive as a leader could be within the context of respecting the Israeli democratic process.
It is no secret the president has a great deal of admiration and respect for the prime minister. [But] the United States relationship is with the State of Israel, and the United States will support Israel under all circumstances, regardless of whom the Israelis choose as their leader.
How about the accusations that Israel was spying on the White House?
There was some concern here that there was no formal denial, and that while the president did say he did not believe the accusations, he added: “But anything is possible.”
The president’s comments can be reasonably interpreted as being a formal denial. When he says that he doesn’t feel Israel was spying on the United States, it is not just on the basis of a personal belief, but on the base of information that he receives every day.
What do you think of the allegations?
As best as I have been able to inquire into the issue, and I think I have done a pretty reasonable inquiry, I think it is completely false.
There is now talk of an Israeli-US Security pact. What is it? How serious is it? At what stage are the discussions?
The comments on the pact – for and against – are premature, because this is something where the details matter tremendously.
Conceptually it is to be limited, at least on the Israeli side, to existential risks: [the] types of risk where it is important for Israel’s enemies to know – and in most cases they are enemies of the US as well – that an attack on Israel could provoke an overwhelming response by the strongest nation on earth. Beyond that, what are Israel’s obligation, how does it work, how does it impact on freedom of operation – the details really have to be sorted through and [then] people can assess whether it is a good or a bad idea.
You were harshly criticized over the summer for two high-profile events: the picture of you taking a sledgehammer and inaugurating the City of David’s Pilgrimage Road under Palestinian homes, and the second was your statement in support of Israel’s decision to bar entry to Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. In retrospect, were those smart moves?
I am very proud of that move [the Pilgrimage Road inauguration]. I am completely comfortable with what happened. It was a once-in-a-century archaeological discovery that deeply connected the modern State of Israel to its historical and biblical roots.
Given the extent to which Israel’s enemies have tried to deny those roots, the fact that there is scientific proof to the contrary is extremely important. Being part of that ceremony was a great honor.
People wanted to react negatively to the symbol of the sledgehammer, and that’s their prerogative. The reality is that we were breaking through a cardboard wall – maybe it was cardboard with reinforcement – but it was a temporary wall 60 feet below anyone’s house, and it did not affect adversely the integrity  of anybody’s [structural] foundations.
Can you understand the Palestinian perspective, and their criticism of the US ambassador taking part in this type of ceremony?
The United States has a deep interest in Jerusalem and its history. It’s had so since before there was a United States, since president Adams, Mark Twain, Ulysses Grant, president Lincoln – – all the way to the present. The fact that we had the opportunity to participate in this discovery, and all that it meant in the scientific corroboration of history, meant a lot to America, as well as to Israel.
The Palestinians have every right to their wishes, political aspirations, beliefs and their personal narratives. But they don’t have a right to their own facts… To resent the fact that science has corroborated what most of us already knew, I’m not sympathetic to that grievance.
How about Omar and Tlaib? Should America’s ambassador back barring the entry of US congresswomen?
My statement of support for Israel’s decision was American policy. It wasn’t my policy, it wasn’t me going out on a limb in favor of Israel over two congresswomen – it was the policy of the United States.
Was the decision to bar entry Israel’s or Trump’s?
It was completely Israel’s decision.
But with his tweet on the matter, didn’t the president clearly make sure what he wanted?
The president has his views. The president never spoke to the prime minister – at least to my knowledge – on this issue at all, and he certainly made no request how he should run his own country on this issue.
Their mission was a mission to ‘Palestine.’ To the best of my knowledge, the United States does not recognize a nation called ‘Palestine,’ at least not at this point. So you have two congresswomen who were basically seeking to establish a new foreign policy of the United States, to a new county that we don’t have a relationship with, and constitutionally that is the role of the president – not two members of Congress.
So I certainly support [Israel’s] decision from an American perspective, but from Israel’s side as well. I think it would have exposed Israel to a greater amount of BDS activism than it has been exposed.
But wasn’t the negative fallout in Congress and among the Democrats even worse?
I’m not sure there was a good outcome either way. I don’t think Israel is looking to pick a fight with any member of Congress; it is not looking to pick a fight with Democrats.
You are obviously someone concerned about Israel’s future. Does the fact that there is now a rift in the Democratic Party toward Israel worry you?
What can be done?
I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding. Let me not attack Democrats, let me attack liberals and progressive, because I think that is less of a political approach.
There is this sense that Israel could somehow, with the flick of a switch, end this so called occupation of Palestine – and the world would be a safer place, and the Palestinians and Israelis would lead better lives. And it’s at odds with the facts and at odds with reality.
I think Israelis kind of look at this perspective, and don’t understand it – and I appreciate why. Because right now, there is no safe way for Israel to separate from the Palestinians. The Palestinians have no control over Hamas, over Islamic Jihad; they continue to pay terrorists; the Palestinian textbooks continue to contain highly inappropriate and inciting language, in some cases. The Palestinians have no record on human rights. These are real problems; they are not things that just get fixed because somebody flicks a switch and says, “Ok, we’re going to move out [of the territories].”
I think there is sort of an intellectual laziness within parts of the population that doesn’t really want to do the work to understand these issues: They just want to see what they consider to be an injustice remedied. But it is just not that simple, and everyone in Israel knows it is not that simple. And everybody that does the work and studies it knows it is not that simple. But that level of education, thought and study is a rarity among – I think largely – the liberal, progressive world.
…People need to understand these issues better, they need to do more work; they need to come here if they care about the issue. They can speak to both sides – there should be full and open discussion – but the notion that Israel’s security problems are a thing of the past is, regrettably, just not true.
How do you address concerns that Netanyahu is too close to a divisive president, and that the next president –if a Democrat – might take this out on Israel?
Foreign policy is determined by the president. Every Israeli leader is going to want to have a close relationship with the American president, regardless of who that president is at any point in time. I think that will continue. I hope the president gets a second term, but even if he doesn’t, I am hopeful that [the next] president would pick up where this president has left off, because I think what he has done with regard to the relationship between Israel and the US has been very good for the US, not just for Israel.