Will Trump waiver or deliver?

That would represent a sudden reversal of decades of US policy – and virtually guarantee new violence in the region and even more international isolation for the Jewish state.

December 21, 2016 21:12
American embassy Israel

The US embassy in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: REUTERS)

David Friedman got some very heartening news from a pair of opposites last week. His old friend and bankruptcy client picked him to be the next ambassador to Israel and then the chief Palestinian negotiator declared that the peace process is dead.

What more could a right-wing backer of settlement expansion and opponent of Palestinian statehood want? Friedman, President-elect Donald Trump’s old bankruptcy lawyer whose resume includes nothing faintly resembling diplomacy, said he intends to work “from the US Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” He is referring to the US Consulate on Agron Street in Jerusalem, making that the de facto embassy, instead of the old building on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv.

That would represent a sudden reversal of decades of US policy – and virtually guarantee new violence in the region and even more international isolation for the Jewish state.

Palestinians and their supporters were quick to condemn his statement. It will mean “more chaos, lawlessness and extremism,” said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator. “No one should take any decisions which may preempt or prejudge (negotiations) because this will be the destruction of the peace process as a whole.”

Sheikh Ikrama Sabri, a former mufti of Jerusalem, said moving the embassy to Jerusalem means “the US is declaring a new war on the Palestinians and all Muslim Arabs.”

They’re not alone; many strong Israel supporters see nothing but trouble in the move.

“It’s hard to come up with a single act that would make the Middle East burn more than it is burning right now,” said Aaron David Miller, a former US Mideast envoy.

Trump will have just over four months to decide whether to keep his campaign promise and make the move official. By June 1 he will have to decide whether to waive a 1995 law requiring the embassy move – something the past three presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, have done every six months.

Friedman, 57, an Orthodox Jewish New York lawyer who handled the bankruptcies of Donald Trump’s failed casino enterprise, has been telling friends since election day that he’d get the ambassadorship, and it was made official last week. His hard-right views on settlements, West Bank annexation and the two-state approach along with some nasty name-calling immediately stirred controversy.

He has called Barack Obama “blatantly” antisemitic and said liberal American Jews, like J Street, who don’t share his hardline views are “worse than kapos,” Jews who collaborated with the Nazis.

“[T]hey’re not Jewish, and they’re not pro-Israel,” he said, they are “smug advocates of Israel’s destruction.”

Little wonder many Jews, not just on the Left, are alarmed by the appointment and marshaling to block it in the Senate. They’re hoping that his attacks on Obama and other Jews will unify Democratic opposition to the nomination.

Blocking the appointment may prove good for Israel, but it will also please Republicans, who have been trying for years to use Israel to drive a wedge between Democrats and Jews.

Friedman’s appointment was “clearly designed to send a signal that there will be a change in tone, style and perhaps substance in the US-Israeli relationship,” said Miller.

It’s unclear how much influence he will actually have. Incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said Friedman’s views don’t necessarily represent those of the Trump administration, but it’s hard to believe Friedman would have been expressing those views – most of which apparently are shared by Trump’s son-inlaw, Jared Kushner – if the president-elect objected.

Moreover, Friedman has a longstanding close relationship with Trump, unlike Rex Tillerson, the man who will be his boss as secretary of state and who barely knows the ambassador’s old friend, the president-elect. That can lead to separate channels of communication as well as an ambassador who feels he has the right to act independently of the State Department, which he has called a hot bed of antisemitism.

Friedman’s supporters, including the Republican Jewish Coalition, say his policies will enhance opportunities for peace. That’s absurd. The new ambassador’s approach will make chances for reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians even more remote.

Of course, that may be just what Friedman wants since he opposes the two-state approach and has spoken of unfettered settlement expansion and annexing the rest of the West Bank.

Trump has spoken about cutting an historic Mideast peace deal, but after listening to Friedman few are taking that seriously.

Sending a political and diplomatic novice – and extremist – to one of the world’s most sensitive posts is fraught with danger.

The embassy move could spark Palestinian violence and threaten PA-Israeli security cooperation. “What holds everything together is the amazingly stable security cooperation between Israel and the PA. Once that goes, all bets will be off. One could imagine frustration boiling over on the Palestinian street over the US stance, compounded by anger over Abbas’s moribund leadership,” said Howard Sumka, the former director of the USAID Mission to West Bank and Gaza. “Should people take to the streets, it will be up to the PA Security Force, US trained and equipped, to keep the lid on.”

There is also a diplomatic risk for Israel in moving the embassy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made significant progress is building relations – clandestine as well as overt – with Arab Gulf states, moderate Muslim regimes in Central Asia and in Africa.

Diplomatic observers say it will be difficult for those states to maintain their new relations with Israel if a third intifada erupts over Jerusalem.

Netanyahu made no secret of his preference for Trump and welcomed Friedman’s nomination and vow to move the embassy, but he could come to regret what he wished for. He no longer has an American administration to blame for his resistance to right-wing pressure to annex more of the West Bank and build more settlements.

And bowing to that pressure could damage relations with European allies, which have been highly critical of those policies and threatening to impose sanctions.

Priebus’ attempt at damage control may be too late. Friedman’s pronouncements have been embraced on the Right, in Washington and in Israel, as Trump’s promises, and moving the embassy is being defined as a litmus test of the new administration’s support for the Jewish state. On June 1 we’ll learn whether Trump will waiver or deliver.

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