David Friedman with Donald Trump in Manhattan.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
WASHINGTON – The State Department’s Israel policy team comprises career diplomats who have served under Democratic and Republican administrations for much of their adult lives, and they, for much of their time there, have built a confident consensus on how to speak publicly about the Jewish state’s conflict with the Palestinians.
These are the people behind the carefully worded reactions to breaking news developments in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza; the people who spend months obsessing over every word of the latest Quartet Report on Middle East peace in order to ensure the document is as honest a representation of facts on the ground as they can best determine.
These are the senior State Department officials quoted anonymously in the press: public servants who, regardless of the party in power, will remain in place with all of their scars from experience.
The diplomatic corps participates in the Middle East peace process according to a basic premise: that its influence over the parties to the conflict is only as strong as the legitimacy they maintain with both as a fair and balanced arbiter. It now fears that influence may diminish under President-elect Donald Trump, after his announcement on Thursday night that attorney David Friedman would be Washington’s ambassador to Israel.
Supporting the right to self-determination of all peoples, and specifically in the justness of Zionism as well as in the Palestinians’ call for a homeland of their own, the US government first opened relations with the PLO only after it recognized the State of Israel and renounced terrorism in 1988.
America’s foreign service officers assigned to this portfolio believe the US is in a unique position to leverage Israel – an imperfect place but a stalwart ally, and genuine liberal democracy in a dark region of the world – precisely because of its unflinching support for the short- and long-term security of the Jewish homeland.
They sincerely believe that a two-state solution is the only way to end the conflict – as a majority of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans do to this day – and that such an outcome would open unprecedented economic and diplomatic channels for Israel worldwide, representing the greatest security guarantee of all.
State Department officials are worried that Trump’s new envoy – as well as Jared Kushner, Trump’s inexperienced son-in-law being floated as Middle East envoy and who presumably consulted the president-elect on Friedman’s appointment – will not proceed with this historic sense of caution.
They fear Trump’s new State Department leadership will thus entrench the conflict further, distancing Israel from the promise of a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians, by questioning the need to “dignify” them with a state.
A supporter of Israel’s settlement enterprise, Friedman breaks with the traditional view that such construction erodes the prospects of peace held by Republican and Democratic American presidents, going back to the erection of Israel’s very first West Bank housing units.
Friedman questions the viability of the two-state solution and of America’s role in brokering one, and says he will fight to move Washington’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite Israel’s own defense minister calling the move a mistake.
The GOP caucus and Israel’s political right understand there is a limit to the amount of pressure the Palestinian leadership can reasonably endure before experiencing a collapse. The State Department and the Netanyahu government have persuaded Republicans in Congress to maintain aid to the Palestinian Authority despite a series of troubling events over the course of the last year – particularly the PA leadership’s inciting violence against Israeli civilians – because they together fear what would replace the PA should it fall.
In this spirit, State Department officials believe that maintaining a peace process – and giving the Palestinians some hope and dignity – is an essential diplomatic goal that would be undermined by any US legitimization of Israeli settlement activity, public dismissal of the Palestinian cause and questioning of a two-state solution.
Friedman’s appointment augurs concern among these career diplomats that Trump will not take into account the potential political consequences of their policy moves intended to signal a “pro-Israel” stance – factors critical in the State Department’s gestalt not only to maintaining US legitimacy in the Middle East, but in securing a long-term peace for Israel and in girding against a Palestinian leadership crisis.