President-elect Trump, even before taking his oath of office, has already generated two distinct controversies relating to Israel. One arises from the designation of David Friedman, Mr. Trump’s long-time bankruptcy attorney, as his choice to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel. The other is his stated intention/desire/plan/hope (you pick the word, because I certainly can’t) to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
David Friedman is a successful attorney, with no diplomatic experience at all. He is an orthodox Jew and a vigorous advocate for Israel. He is also a person with a flair for making some pretty outrageous statements.
When Pres. Obama was arguing in support of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, he made a major speech at American University. In that speech, he said some things that, in my opinion, were quite inappropriate. For example, he said that Iranian hardliners who chant “Death to America” are “making common cause with the Republican caucus.”
This is offensive, particularly coming from someone who is president. Pres. Obama also noted the strenuous opposition of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the deal with Iran, and frankly acknowledged the disagreement between himself and the prime minister.
In response to the Obama administration’s support for the Iran deal, Mr. Friedman authored a blog piece in which he asserted that “[t]he blatant anti-Semitism emanating from our President and his sycophantic minions is palpable and very disturbing.” This is a stunning accusation. Putting the unnamed “minions” aside, Mr. Friedman here unequivocally alleges that “blatant anti-Semitism” has been “emanating” from Pres. Obama.
One would think that, upon making such an allegation, Mr. Friedman would have ready at hand a long list of specific things the president had said or done that would justify the charge. In fact, there were no specifics at all.
Mr. Friedman offered only the ugly, unsubstantiated allegation of anti-Semitism, along with references to the notorious Dreyfus Affair. The history of an infamous eruption of anti-Semitism in France around the beginning of the twentieth century obviously cannot justify allegations that vilify an incumbent president in 2015.
Pres. Obama is not the only person who has been excoriated by Mr. Friedman. The lobbying group J Street bills itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure, democratic and the national home of the Jewish people.” J Street, which tends to attract members of the Democratic party and its political establishment, is not high up on Mr. Friedman’s list of favorite groups.
To be sure, there are many American supporters of Israel, in addition to Mr. Friedman, who feel that J Street is prone to give too much credence to Palestinian complaints about and charges against Israel. So, J Street is not a stranger to criticism.
But Mr. Friedman’s criticism has been especially nasty. He has written that “J Street supporters” are “worse than kapos.” For the uninitiated, “kapos” were Jewish prisoners in concentration camps who cooperated with the Nazis by acting as camp guards. Among Jews, there can be no more vile epithet. Yet, that is what Mr. Friedman called the many thousands of J Street supporters, many of whom of course are Jewish.
Perhaps in the course of his confirmation hearing Mr. Friedman will give a satisfactory explanation for these outlandish statements. It is hard to imagine what that explanation might be; we’ll have to wait and see.
With regard to moving the U.S. embassy to Israel, this is a pledge that Mr. Trump made in the course of his campaign, as did George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in their respective initial campaigns for president. The latter two, on assuming the presidency, decided to reconsider and leave the embassy in Tel Aviv.
The usual objection to moving the embassy is that the move would enrage Palestinians and other Arabs, and thus make a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians more difficult to achieve. The sentiment is captured in a very recent headline from The Guardian: “Moving US embassy to Jerusalem could provoke violent 'chaos', experts warn”.
I think that, without access to a very shiny crystal ball, it is impossible to know whether the move would hurt or enhance prospects for peace. Reasonable arguments can be made on each side.
The Palestinians say that moving the embassy would definitively put an end to the peace process. But, why should this be so?
The embassy would certainly be moved to some site in West Jerusalem, and the Palestinians have always insisted that the capitol of their state-to-be would be East Jerusalem. It may be that threats to end the peace process are just that—threats, and ones that are unlikely to be carried out.
Moreover, threatening to put an end to the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians is a little like threatening to put an end to black-and-white TV sets, or to floppy disks--it’s something that has pretty much happened on its own.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu insists he is ready to sit down with Palestinians at any time, without any preconditions. But Mahmoud Abbas, who is president of the Palestinian Authority (and whose four-year term as president will begin its twelfth year in January of 2017), prefers not to negotiate until Israel first agrees to halt all settlement activity. So, there really is no ongoing peace process to stymie.
It is possible that moving the embassy will stimulate violence or chaos, but it is also possible that a move would revive the moribund peace process. A move would certainly be seen as something of a setback among Palestinians, and that might convince a decisive number of them and their leaders that the strategy of insisting on preconditions to negotiations is not helping their cause.
The only thing we can say with certainty is that there is profound uncertainty as to whether moving the U.S. embassy will help or hurt chances for a lasting peace. Pres. Trump will have to decide. Let’s all hope his crystal ball is very shiny.