WASHINGTON – Back in December, after the Obama administration rattled Israel by abstaining from a UN Security Council vote condemning its settlement activity, aides to the outgoing president defended the move as a desperate ploy to preserve America’s longstanding position in support of a twostate solution.That position was under threat from President- elect Donald Trump, according to Ben Rhodes, one of Barack Obama’s longtime aides, as Trump’s plans to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to tap David Friedman as his Israel envoy were both direct attacks on decades of bipartisan American foreign policy.“They sent a clear message with their ambassador nominee,” Rhodes told The Jerusalem Post at the time. Friedman has a long personal history of supporting the settler enterprise. “That tells you what you need to know about the position of the incoming administration.”
But Rhodes may have spoken too soon.Trump has since rolled back his plans to swiftly move Washington’s embassy, and Friedman’s appointment seems less prescient than it had before, now that Trump is issuing support for a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians resulting in a final-status agreement.“I am not someone who believes that advancing settlements is good for peace,” Trump told Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom last week. “I think we can reach an agreement and that we need to reach an agreement.”Settler leaders are once again rattled after pinning their hopes for months on Trump’s candidacy, nomination and ultimate election.They now wonder what to expect from an ambitious foreign policy team surrounding Trump, and question whether Friedman will still have sway from afar over the president’s emerging policy on settlements.Trump was aware of the message he sent Israel in selecting Friedman, who served him as an adviser on Israel and Jewish world issues throughout the campaign. Before the election, Friedman worked as one of Trump’s lawyers.“This is one that’s not at all controversial,” Trump quipped of Friedman on Inauguration Day, signing executive orders on his major appointments shortly after taking the oath of office. “David’s going to do a great job.”When Friedman pitches himself to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, it will be the first real trial of expectations set by Israeli hard-liners supportive of his appointment. Trump will host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office the day before, but carefully worded statements and choreographed chemistry in the White House will reveal less than what Friedman has to say over the course of several hours in the Senate.Friedman will speak not on his own behalf, but for a government that is slowly and with unexpected precision formulating policy that contrasts markedly with the proposals he pioneered in the presidential race. Friedman will likely emphasize the president’s belief that settlements are not an obstacle to peace; but the White House has made clear Trump’s belief that settlements are an impediment, at minimum, to the peace process itself.How Friedman explains that distinction will be telling of the administration’s upcoming plans, and of his role in the current policy-making process.
David Friedman at Pro-Trump rally in Jerusalem before elections: A Trump administration will never pressure Israel into two-state solution (credit: REUTERS)