How should Israelis take to Trump's Friedman-embassy bear hug?

There was something unsettling though, even hypocritical, with the way the Left reacted to Friedman’s appointment.

December 23, 2016 11:25
A soldier stands next to a bus stop with a pro-Trump poster near the West Bank Jewish settlement of

A soldier stands next to a bus stop with a pro-Trump poster near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. (photo credit: REUTERS)

On September 9, 2003, at about 11:20 p.m., a Palestinian suicide bomber walked into Café Hillel on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem and blew himself up.

Seven Israelis were killed, including Dr. David Applebaum, head of the Shaare Zedek emergency room, and his daughter Nava. The two had gone out for one last cup of coffee before Nava’s wedding scheduled for the following day.

David Friedman, the man Donald Trump named last week as the new US ambassador to Israel, was in Jerusalem. Nava, 20 at the time, was supposed to marry a cousin of Friedman’s wife, and they had flown in from New York to join the celebrations.

Instead of a wedding, the guests ended up attending a double funeral for a father and daughter buried side-by-side in Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery.

Later that day, Friedman went for a walk through city.

Crossing the upscale neighborhood of Talbiyeh, he looked up at a skeleton of a building in the initial stages of construction and called the contractor’s number, posted on the sign outside.

The two made up to meet later that day.

They walked through the unfinished building until they got to one of the top floors. Friedman asked how much the floor would cost. The contractor threw out a sum and right there Friedman accepted. For the contractor, it was unreal: 2003 was the height of the second intifada, terrorist attacks were a regular occurrence throughout Israel, and real estate prices were at an all-time low. To find a customer willing to buy an entire floor was a dream come true.

But that is David Friedman. While media attention over the last week focused on the controversial and inappropriate comments he made about J Street, we shouldn’t forget the basics: Friedman is a proud Jew, a huge supporter of Israel, an American patriot, and most importantly when it comes to his new posting, a close confidant of the man who on January 20 will become the leader of the Free World.

This does not mean we should condone everything he says or writes. US ambassadors to Israel should find a way to work with all Jewish-American organizations, even those with whom they might have personal and fundamental disagreements, like J Street.

But we should put this into perspective. What Friedman wrote was in his capacity as a private citizen. Now that he is the ambassador-designate, he likely knows that his personal politics will need to be cast aside. He no longer represents himself. Like all ambassadors, he serves at the pleasure of the president. He represents the president’s views and implements the president’s policies.

There was something unsettling though, even hypocritical, with the way the Left reacted to Friedman’s appointment. For The New York Times, it seemed like the end of days. According to the paper, Friedman’s appointment will “heighten regional tensions and undermine American leadership.”

Seriously? Friedman will undermine American leadership? Has the Times forgotten that President Barack Obama already undermined his own leadership in the Middle East, when he set red lines in Syria which disappeared the moment they were not enforced after being flagrantly violated? Just look at whom the regional Sunni states turn to today when they are in trouble – not to the US, but to Israel. Considering the growing Russian presence in the region and the lack of US involvement, I’m not sure just how much more that leadership can be undermined.

If anything, Friedman, as the representative of a newly- elected president, has the opportunity to rebuild America’s leadership and standing in the region. It won’t be an easy task considering the damage that has been done, and the general suspicion of Trump. But it is doable.

The hypocrisy was not limited to the press – it found its way into Israeli politics as well. Numerous Israeli lawmakers on the Left railed against the appointment. Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On, for example, said that Friedman “is a catastrophic choice” to serve as ambassador.

Has Gal-On forgotten that Friedman was nominated to his post by the president-elect of the United States? Does she not realize that as a member of the Knesset, her comment undermines Israel’s relationship with America? This is an even bigger hypocrisy considering the same Gal-On slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a year ago for addressing Congress to prevent the Iran deal. The prime minister, she said then, was harming US-Israeli relations. So basically, according to Gal-On, Netanyahu’s speech to Congress harmed ties with the US, but calling the man selected by the incoming president to serve as his official envoy to Israel a “catastrophe” doesn’t? Friedman can take some comfort knowing that this is not the first time the Left in America and Israel have opposed an ambassadorial appointment.

In 2013, when Netanyahu tapped Ron Dermer – his longtime aid – as the Israeli ambassador to the US, some on the Left viewed it as a slap to President Barack Obama’s face due to Dermer’s alleged support of Mitt Romney in the elections the year before. Peter Beinart, for example, wrote that Dermer is an unprofessional diplomat “who behaves in such undiplomatic fashion.”

In the end Washington did not fight the appointment, for the most part since the administration understood that Dermer, as ambassador, came with a valuable asset – a direct line of communication with the prime minister. Dermer was Netanyahu’s close confidant and someone who always had the prime minister’s ear (Dermer, by the way, had planned to return to Israel after the elections if Hillary Clinton had won. He is now staying in Washington with no end to his term in sight).

The same seems to be the case with Friedman. He is not a politician, nor a diplomat, but he comes from Trump’s inner circle. They have been friends for over 15 years. Friedman was one of the two witnesses who signed the ketuba of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, and when Ivanka came to Israel a few years ago to look at investment opportunities, Friedman was by her side.

This closeness is an advantage for an ambassador, but even more so for the country where he or she is stationed. It means that when a message is given to an ambassador, it goes directly to that country’s leadership without intermediaries.

Considering the challenges the US and Israel are facing in the region, this kind of ambassador will likely come in handy.

Will Donald Trump really move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Based on media attention, this question seems to be at the heart of today’s US-Israeli alliance. It shouldn’t be.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was right when he said earlier this month that it would be a mistake to focus everything on the embassy, especially considering the more pressing issues the two countries need to tackle – Iran, the ongoing war in Syria, deadlock in the peace process with the Palestinians, and regional stability.

The fact that the embassy has not been in Jerusalem until now is a travesty. Jerusalem has been the Jewish people’s capital for millennia, and even considering diplomatic circumstances, there was never a reason the US Embassy couldn’t be in the western side of the city, the part that has been under Israeli control since the state was established in 1948.

Nevertheless, I question the practical gain from having it moved to Jerusalem. It’s true that it would be recognizing Israeli sovereignty over its capital, but not much more. Other countries are unlikely to follow suit – a number of ambassadors from Europe and Asia have told me so in recent weeks - and while it might seem to reflect a significant change in US-Israeli relations, it might mean the opposite.

Here is one scenario: Imagine Jordan’s King Abdullah calls Trump and explains to him that if the embassy is moved to Jerusalem, the streets of Amman will be swept up in riots that will threaten his regime’s survival. Seventy percent of Jordanians are Palestinian, and there are already hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country. The economic challenges Abdullah faces, combined with the threats from radical extremists, are daunting. He is one of the last American and Israeli allies still standing in the Middle East. Risking his regime needs to be handled delicately.

Here is another scenario: Trump receives a call from King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who reminds the president that to successfully defeat ISIS, it would be a mistake to empower radicals by moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Salman might then call Rex Tillerson, the new secretary of state, who has strong ties in the Gulf from his nearly 40-year career at ExxonMobil.

What will Trump and Tillerson do then? Your guess is as good as mine.

I am not questioning Trump’s position on Israel. All indications are that he strongly supports the country. But when considering realpolitik, moving the embassy should not be the litmus test for whether someone supports the Jewish state or not. There are bigger issues that need to be dealt with and other considerations that need to be taken into account.

There is also a completely different possibility: Trump might be using the embassy and Friedman’s appointment to give Israel a bear hug, before he starts pressuring Netanyahu to make a deal with the Palestinians. He will first shower them with love and then lay on the pressure.

This would be the exact opposite of what happened with Obama. In 2009, Obama gave his famous Cairo speech and made a clear decision to create daylight between Israel and the US. When he then began pressuring Israel, it didn’t take much to turn Israeli and American-Jewish public opinion against him because of the Cairo speech.

The possibility that Trump might be thinking this far ahead is unlikely, even though he has said numerous times since winning the election that he wants to be the president who brokers the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, Israelis need to consider all possible scenarios.

One thing is for sure: in the meantime it’s nice to be getting a warm bear hug.

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