David Friedman reflects on Trump's revolutionary Middle East policies

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: The now former US ambassador to Israel left office this week proud of his accomplishments, but concerned about Biden's plans.

David Friedman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
David Friedman
On the evening of January 6, then-US ambassador to Israel David Friedman was not glued to his TV screen, watching then-president Donald Trump call on his supporters to march to the US Capitol and “fight like hell,” and seeing those demonstrators storm the Senate, like so many of us were. Former US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin was in Israel, and Friedman was busy joining him in meetings.
But when Friedman caught up on the news the next morning, he was “mortified,” he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post just before his last day in office this week.
“If there’s any doubt as to whether I condemn the rhetoric that got this started – I certainly do. It was too much. Yes, including the president,” Friedman said. “I wish the president hadn’t given the speech he gave.”
Friedman expressed hope that, with time, the dust from January 6 will settle, and people will remember the good that the Trump administration did.
“I’m really, really unhappy about how this all worked out. It’s not what the Trump administration should be known for. It’s not the way I hope we would have transitioned,” he said. “And there are lots of really, really good people who committed themselves and everything they had over the past four years to serve the interests of the US who don’t deserve to be tagged with this horrific event at the end of the term.”
Friedman seemed to find the events baffling: “I want to understand who was driving the violence. How did they get in? How did they manage to achieve this? Why wasn’t [the Capitol] better protected?... I hope – with the benefit of some hindsight, as things calm down – we’ll... understand how this happens, so it doesn’t happen again.”
“There’s lots of blame to go around,” Friedman said, explaining that Trump is not the only one at fault, because there has been “an unfortunate exchange of one extreme position for another, back and forth,” for the past four years, including people who had not “accepted the president’s leadership in a civilized way.”
The Trump administration “started badly and ended badly,” he recounted.
“It started badly, because the day the president was inaugurated, half the country was protesting saying ‘he’s not my president.’ The use of government apparatus to spy on the president was unconscionable, Russiagate was unconscionable, impeachment over a phone call was unconscionable....
“The story didn’t begin on January 6, 2021. It began long ago. The seeds of so much discontent were sowed on both sides.”
The ambassador also pointed to the Black Lives Matter protests and riots over the summer, saying: “Qualifying violence by saying this is okay because it’s protesting for civil rights, this is not okay because it’s protesting an election – that, to me, is painting with too fine a brush.”
Friedman said he long “believed we were headed to some kind of societal breakdown,” and the Capitol riot seems to be just that.
Most Americans are moderates, leaning Right or Left, Friedman posited, while only a small percentage are on the extremes, but the extremists are “getting a disproportionate amount of the oxygen in the room and way too much of an opportunity to drive the discourse.
“It’s a shame,” Friedman lamented. “It precludes opportunities for consensus or just progress. We’ve become a country of people just yelling at each other all day long.”
Asked whether he believes the sharp domestic divisions in the US have impacted foreign policy, Friedman said “it impacts everything we do. It’s hard to function in that kind of environment.”
But as for whether the Capitol riots got in the way of anything specific the Trump administration tried to accomplish when it came to Israel or the region in its last two weeks in office, Friedman said no.
FRIEDMAN IS not one for looking back. The ambassador said his departure still hadn’t quite sunk in this week.
“I always made a point to never do a victory lap or get caught up in anything that would slow us down. I haven’t given myself the opportunity [to look back]. I’m going to run this until noon on Wednesday,” he said.
Still, Friedman said he felt “a cacophony of emotions” in farewell meetings with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the cabinet, including pride in his work and accomplishments and feeling sorry to go, while he is nervous about the future.
Friedman spoke to the Post in Jerusalem, in the over-150-year-old building, property of the US since 1912, that has been his official residence since the sale of the huge Herzliya home that once housed US ambassadors to Israel.
Though much of the media coverage of that move has been about how much smaller the Jerusalem home, which became a US consulate in 1912, is than the Herzliya one, it is stately, built in an Arab style with arched ceilings, and part of a large compound.
That move was emblematic of what Friedman said was the highlight of his nearly four years as ambassador.
Out of all the major Israel policies the Trump administration advanced – the Abraham Accords normalizations between Israel and Arab states, accepting Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, declaring settlements to not necessarily be illegal, extending US-Israel scientific cooperation to Judea and Samaria, and more – the biggest moment was the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy, Friedman said.
“That opened up the universe of possibilities that followed,” he said. “It was that glass that needed to break in order to just move on. When the president did it, it was a stand for the truth, for keeping a promise, a willingness to show America stands with allies and doesn’t flinch from enemies.”
Jerusalem was Israel’s capital before Trump recognized it, Friedman pointed out.
“We felt it was always the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Leaders would come to Jerusalem... but no one was willing to recognize it. It was such a glaring omission and it was so powerful to be able to correct that,” he said.
When the reaction to the embassy move was not as extreme as many predicted – “the world didn’t end,” Friedman quipped – it emboldened the Trump administration to continue challenging common foreign policy wisdom on Israel.
“It opened horizons for new and different thinking that I think was the hallmark of our term in office,” he stated.
As for what the Trump administration didn’t manage to do when it comes to Israel, Friedman said he thought he was pretty good at checking things off of his to-do list, and that the US-Israel relationship is in a better place now than it was four years ago.
At the same time, he said: “I don’t think I’ll be complacent until Israel’s geopolitical status is the same as Norway’s. Israel is still under more pressure than it should be. There are more challenges to its existence than there should be.”
“For too long, too much international pressure focused on Israel with obsessiveness no other country has to face,” he stated. “It caused Israelis to view the world in terms of what they can get away with.”
An important thing Friedman said that the Trump administration did right is “removed those shackles” from Israel.
“We took the view that Israel knows what’s best for itself, like any other country does. To me, that’s the core of Zionism.... We said, first and foremost, decide what’s best for you... not what any other country says.
“I hope that theme continues,” he added. “Israel... is a regional superpower and should act like one.”
FRIEDMAN HAS concerns about the Biden administration, but when asked what he meant when he said he is nervous about the future, his first answer was that he finds trends in the “fractured” US Jewish community very troubling.
“That ultimately has the potential to percolate into all kinds of different risks for Judaism, for Jewry and for Israel. How all that gets healed is of great concern to me. I want it to be healed. I don’t have a particularly good fix for this right now,” Friedman said.
One key problem Friedman pointed to is a lack of in-depth Jewish – not necessarily Orthodox – education: “Not enough people are availing themselves of the opportunity to understand how we got to this point as Jews.
“Most committed Jews in the US generally just view Israel as a necessary response to the Holocaust, and it is, but it’s so much more. And if that’s all it is, then it suggests that if you can keep Jews safe any other way, Israel is less important,” he explained. “The future of Judaism is in Israel now. Judaism, I believe, will either survive and flourish or not based on what happens here, in this country.”
When it comes to the Biden administration, Friedman was most worried about its policies toward Iran.
Friedman pointed to Biden’s appointments of many people instrumental in the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers: top Iran deal negotiator Wendy Sherman tapped as deputy secretary of state, Antony Blinken as secretary of state and Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, along with former secretary of state John Kerry and ex-national security advisor Susan Rice in senior posts.
“The Iran band is back together again,” he said. “You’d have to not be paying attention not to be concerned about Iran, given [their] prominent positions.”
The Trump administration left the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, instituting a “maximum pressure” sanctions regime. It continued over the weekend with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo announcing new sanctions on companies doing business with the Iranian shipping and construction sectors.
Biden has said he hopes to return to the original Iran deal, with strict compliance by the regime, and enter negotiations to strengthen the agreement. However, he faces challenges from a defiant Iran that has ramped up its violations in recent weeks.
Tehran announced this month that it would enrich uranium up to 20% and that it would begin research to produce uranium metals, both major violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal’s official title. Those announcements were the enactment of parts of a recent Iranian parliamentary vote, which also included a resolution to destroy Israel.
Friedman expressed hope that the appointees would realize things have changed since the JCPOA was signed.
“In 2015, reasonable minds could disagree,” he said. “Someone could give the benefit of the doubt and think the Iran deal was a good idea. The premise was that Iran would self-modulate.... Now we know they didn’t. They destroyed Yemen, attacked America in Iraq, attacked Israel from Syria and funded Hezbollah, Israel’s greatest risk on any border.”
Over five years later, “we know they cheated,” he said. “We know that when they said they never had a military infrastructure for their nuclear ambitions, they were lying.
“I’m hoping any rational person would know we can’t return to the JCPOA, but the news reports [indicate] trouble,” Friedman said.
The departing ambassador also expressed hope that the next administration would build on the Abraham Accords, the Trump-backed peace and normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
“They’re brand-new,” he said. “We don’t have a long track record with them.”
Friedman emphasized the extensive efforts the Trump administration took to make the agreements a reality, highlighting his senior adviser Aryeh Lightstone’s travels throughout the region to foster agreements between Israel and the other countries’ governments once normalization was announced.
“The Abraham Accords are still new; they need to be nurtured,” Friedman said. “I hope we can continue to nurture this relationship. It’s too new to leave it on its own.”
Friedman’s advice to his replacement would basically be to leave Israel be. He argued that there is a consensus that the Trump administration did a good job in the Middle East, and the next administration would do well to address other problems in the world and domestically.
“We left our relationship with Israel as strong as it has ever been, and it is reciprocal – we are getting an excellent return on investment in Israel that should be maintained. The Abraham Accords have been transformational and need to be maintained.... The issues that tend to occupy people’s attention are all in a good place,” he said.
As such, Friedman said, “the short answer [is that], oddly enough, of all places, the Middle East is pretty good. You should leave well enough alone.
“There are lots of other problems – China, Russia, domestic issues. There is plenty to work on. Leave the Middle East alone. Leave Israel alone, on the path that it is on,” he suggested.
Now that Friedman is no longer ambassador, what is next for him?
Trump’s former bankruptcy attorney said he does not plan to return to practicing law.
First, the departing ambassador plans to write a book about his experiences.
Then, Friedman says, he hopes to continue to have a positive impact in Israel.
“I’m going to find a way to be relevant in this space,” he promised.