(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week in a 52-46 vote that mostly hewed to party lines (two Democrats voted for him), the US Senate confirmed David Friedman, a longtime lawyer of President Donald Trump, as the US ambassador to Israel.
The decision to have a roll-call vote was unusual. The appointment of ambassadors is normally devoid of controversy and is confirmed by the Senate in a quick show of hands or by a unanimous vote.
But Friedman’s review and confirmation were very different.
In past op-eds for the online news site Arutz Sheva, Friedman made comments that – while they might have been in agreement with the most right-wing elements in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government – attacked some of the more liberal and progressive elements of the Jewish community.
He accused, for example, former US president Barack Obama of “blatant antisemitism” because he failed to denounce terrorism and he assailed J Street as worse than “kapos during the Nazi regime.”
Friedman has since distanced himself from these statements and apologized for many of them.
Last month, in a prepared speech he read before a Senate confirmation session, Friedman said that he understands “the critical difference between the partisan rhetoric of a political contest and a diplomatic mission.”
Like many of Trump’s picks for cabinet posts, Friedman does not have any previous experience as a diplomat, a fact that actually mitigates in his favor to the extent that his comments in those op-eds were not a work of diplomacy.
In addition, those comments need to be viewed within the context of the last election cycle, which was without question unique in its hostile atmosphere and extreme criticism of both sides by one another. The rhetoric used by Democrats and Republicans alike was often hard to hear. What Friedman wrote was part of that.
This week, Friedman will be sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence as ambassador and will soon will travel to Israel to take up his new position.
He will arrive at a complex time. The threat of elections still lingers in the air in Israel as a deal between Washington DC and Jerusalem on the construction of settlements continues to be worked on. Because of his steadfast support for Israel over the years – Friedman was the chairman, for example, of the American Friends of Beit El – he has a unique opportunity to use his new position to reassure Israel in ways that his predecessors might not have been able to.
The debate around the viability of a two-state solution often focuses on the security risks Israel will need to take to allow the Palestinians to establish a state. As Syria disintegrates before our eyes and with Hamas and Hezbollah along Israel’s borders, it is difficult to convince Israelis that the territory-for-peace paradigm is still relevant and that they will remain safe and secure.
That is why the first and foremost role America can play in such a process is to demonstrate that it has Israel’s safety and security as its top priority – that it has Israel’s back.
Early in its term, the Obama administration made a conscious decision to “create daylight” between Israel and America, a move that made it difficult to persuade the government in Jerusalem and the Israeli people that the US ultimately does have its back. While Israel gained tremendously from military aid under Obama, that daylight gap always lingered.
With the Trump administration, that daylight seems to be gone. As Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said at the opening of the AIPAC Policy Conference on Sunday: “When it comes to the great challenges facing Israel and the United States, for the first time in many years, perhaps in many decades, there is no daylight between our two governments.”
Friedman’s appointment is one of the reasons for this change. As Pence said Sunday night at AIPAC: “David is an unabashed advocate for a stronger Israel-America relationship and our friendship will be stronger after he gets sworn in as ambassador. And I got to tell you, I just can’t wait.”
Friedman made a number of problematic statements in the past. However, he should be allowed a grace period to prove himself as an ambassador who is open to hearing all sides of Israeli society as he promotes the policies of his boss, President Donald Trump.