Amb. Friedman talks to Jpost about peace, Syria and working for Trump

In his first interview as ambassador to Israel Friedman talks about finding the win-win solution.

US AMBASSADOR to Israel David Friedman. (photo credit: Courtesy)
US AMBASSADOR to Israel David Friedman.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In July, a few weeks after the Temple Mount crisis had come to an end, David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, flew to Washington for a private meeting with US President Donald Trump.
On the surface, a meeting between an ambassador and his president doesn’t sound all that unique, except that it was Friedman’s second visit to the White House within the span of two months.
In between, there were a number of phone calls between the two.
The flurry of conversations and meetings between Friedman and the man who appointed him demonstrates the unique relationship between these two men, something that is highly significant for Israel.
Not only is Friedman one of only a handful of ambassadors Trump has appointed since becoming president, but he also enjoys direct access to him, an invaluable asset for a host country. Secondly, it shows Trump’s interest in what is happening in Israel, in the conflict with the Palestinians and, more importantly, in the ways to resolve it.
Friedman made this last point clear during an exclusive interview – his first since becoming ambassador in May – that he gave The Jerusalem Post this week. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said, is a “very high priority” on the president’s agenda.
“If we conclude that there’s an opportunity here that really works well for both sides, I think he will jump into this to help it get done,” Friedman said.
“But we’re not there yet, and we’re still working with the parameters. He is, I think, very much committed to seeing this done.”
We met with Friedman at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. The walls and bookshelves of his office are still mostly bare, testimony to the little time he has been in the post most people never believed he would get.
An Orthodox Jewish bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, Friedman was a named partner at a top New York law firm. There, about 16 years ago, he began working with Trump on a number of bankruptcy cases. They struck up a friendship that sent Trump through a blizzard to visit Friedman as he sat shiva for his father. Later, the future ambassador was one of the two signatories on the ketuba for Trump’s daughter Ivanka at her wedding with Jared Kushner.
This close relationship is evident in the ambassador’s conference room, a wide room with a long table where the walls are lined by framed letters left by visiting presidents. Each letter is pretty much the same text – appreciation for the embassy staff’s work during the president’s visit. The letter Trump left behind after his visit to Israel in May is the longest.
A letter to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman from US President Donald Trump thanking the ambassador for his efforts during Trump's Israel visit.
A letter to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman from US President Donald Trump thanking the ambassador for his efforts during Trump's Israel visit.
It starts with the standard thank-you to the embassy staff for the “tremendous job” it did in facilitating the president’s trip to Israel. But it includes an additional paragraph to Friedman that is not pro forma.
“Seeing you on the ground – in your element – reaffirmed my decision to appoint you as the Ambassador to Israel. There is no one better to serve the US in this important role. You will do a fantastic job, and I think you will be able to help us negotiate the ultimate deal.
It will be a blessing to Israel and the world!” Soon after Trump launched his presidential campaign, he appointed Friedman – together with now-special envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt – as heads of his Israel Advisory Committee. When Friedman’s appointment as ambassador was announced last December, it immediately came under criticism because of a series of hard-line comments the former attorney had made in the past.
His past affiliation with, and avid support for, the settlement enterprise and particularly Beit El, made him an instant target for the Left. Nevertheless, he became the president’s first foreign emissary to be confirmed by the Senate in March, though the process was contentious and the 52-46 vote fell pretty While Friedman has softened his rhetoric now as ambassador, adopting a more diplomatic tone, he assures us that his ideology has not changed.
“I don’t want to suggest that my views have really changed very much. Maybe the rhetoric has changed,” he told us.
“Obviously, you become a diplomat. You change your rhetoric. You have an official job. You work for the United States government. You respect the chain of command.
Of course that’s different.”
SINCE COMING to Israel in May, Friedman has kept a low profile, using his time to meet with all sides of the spectrum, to learn more about the state that has been the source of his affection and support for decades, as well as to look at ways for him to achieve two goals – strengthen the US-Israel alliance and help achieve peace and stability in the region.
But even as someone who has long visited Israel – he owns a home in Jerusalem – Friedman recognizes that his vantage point now as ambassador is different than what it used to be. Tourists, he said, tend to look at Israel through “rose-colored glasses.”
As ambassador, he said, his perspective is now slightly different.
On the one hand, he has a newfound appreciation for Israel’s success because, he says, he “has a chance to appreciate just what goes into many of the accomplishments that Israel creates.” But, he said, he also has “a more intense perception” of the country and its people.
He recalls a meeting he had recently at the Knesset with about 40 MKs from across the political spectrum, from the Left and the Right. “You tend to think from the outside that people there hate each other and they can’t get along and there’s these huge divides,” he said. “When you’re there on the ground and you get a chance to meet with people, sometimes informally, when they’re not at work, there’s actually a lot more that unites the government and the citizens than I actually thought.”
But what about your past comments about the Palestinians and especially the Left? we asked.
His opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he responded, did not come from an ideological source but from a practical approach to what is possible and what is not.
“I’m not someone who believes that the outcome should be driven off of an ideology or a religious belief. I think the outcome should be driven off of the Israelis’ justifiable need to live in peace and security,” he said. “As long as there is the culture of hate, as long as there is financing of terror, as long as there is the type of threats that existed and were created in the evacuation of Gaza, Israel can’t afford another failed experiment. It’s not a function, it’s just not a function of ideology. It’s a function of what can be done and what can’t be done.”
What, we asked him, has taken you most by surprise since being appointed ambassador in May? He thought for a moment.
“I think the American Jewish community tends to look at Israel somewhat myopically,” he said. The Right, he said, is portrayed as believing that peace is not possible. The Left, he explained, is portrayed as believing that only if the “alleged occupation” ended would Israel become a better society.
“Israel’s much more nuanced than that,” he said. In private conversations, he said, people on the Left are more respectful of Israel’s security needs and more realistic about the dangers of a failed peace process than one might originally expect.
The same, he said, applies to people on the Right who privately admit to him that, in an optimal world, they don’t want to rule over two million Palestinians against their will and would be open to safe and secure ways to move that forward.
“You don’t get that,” Friedman said. “You don’t get that kind of nuanced center view as much in the States, because there’s not a lot of financial play in the middle.”
What do you say to the people who claim that America – with three Orthodox Jews as the key players on Israel – cannot be an honest broker in the conflict? Friedman rejects this notion. “I don’t think anybody who’s a student of the Middle East comes into a job like this without preexisting views,” he said. “You’d have to be in a coma not to have strong views on this in this position. Everybody does.”
Because he has views different from the ones that have reigned in Washington over the years, or that have been held by his predecessors, he says he is the one suspected of having a conflict of interest.
“I just have a different view,” Friedman said. “I think my view is absolutely as legitimate as anyone else’s. It has nothing to do really with being Jewish or being religious. I know tons of people who are not Jewish and obviously have the same views.”
The president, he said, chose him for two primary reasons. The first was because he believed in his abilities. His appointment, though, was also meant to signal that “America is going to be a better friend to Israel than it had been over the past eight years.”
Here, Friedman delivered a sharp rebuke of former president Barack Obama and his decision not to veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in the final days of his presidency.
“I don’t want to speak for the president, although he has been on the record on this; I’ll speak for myself,” he prefaced. “I thought it was an absolute betrayal of Israel by the Obama administration, as sharp a betrayal as any president I think has ever inflicted upon Israel. Of course, in the aftermath of that, the president wanted to signal a change, and I think that was well within his thinking when he appointed me to be the ambassador.”
SO, WE asked, what is Trump’s plan for achieving peace? Friedman had prepared for this question. The administration, he said, has made a strategic decision not to speak openly about its plans or the possible parameters.
“We think the only way to get to a result is to keep these discussions as confidential as humanly possible while they’re going on, so as not to be pulled in different directions because of leaks,” he explained.
But, we reminded him, Trump campaigned on an agenda that was domestic with little foreign intervention. Since he has taken office, though, he has visited Israel and has sent his senior adviser, Kushner, twice. So what is the ultimate objective? The goal, he said, is to find a solution that “would be a win-win for Israel and the Palestinians.”
“If it’s not good for both, it’s not going to get done, so we’re trying to find ways to make sure that each side looks at the opportunity versus the present and concludes that the opportunity is better than the present,” he continued. “We’re very sensitive to all the things that go into the calculus, and we’re trying to find the right place where both sides can say: ‘We’re better off jumping into this pool than staying where we are.’” When Trump met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington in May, we said, he claimed that a peace deal might not be as difficult as it seems. Does he still believe that, eight months in? On the one hand, Friedman said, Trump is troubled by the violence – and particularly Palestinian terrorism – that flares up every few weeks.
But, he added, on the flip side it “causes him to redouble his efforts to try to see if this can be brought to a successful conclusion. I think he said maybe it’s not as hard as people thought. No one’s kidding themselves into thinking that this is a walk in the park.”
What is the relationship like between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump? we asked.
Friedman had one word: “Phenomenal.”
“I think they have a lot in common. I think they’re both decisive leaders,” he said. “I think they’re both serving as the leaders of countries that are politically divided and trying to find ways to maintain functioning governments, but the main thing I would say is the chemistry.”
Get Netanyahu and Trump in a room together, Friedman said, and they simply enjoy each other’s company. “The chemistry is just excellent. It’s fun to be with them. It’s not a formal meeting. They’re not on edge.
They’re not sitting back in their chairs in a formal way. They’re kind of talking like a couple of friends, and it’s fun to be in the room with them, because the conversations are really pleasant.
They’re funny. They’re cordial.”
Even with that chemistry, however, there are differences. For instance, despite campaign promises to the contrary, Trump has not yet moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and he signed a congressional waiver in June to prevent such a move. But Friedman, a strong proponent of moving the embassy, said Trump will eventually deliver on that promise.
Trump has made his position clear, the ambassador said. Moving the embassy is a matter of “when,” not “if.” The debate inside the administration, he said, centers now around the timing. “It’s something we think about all the time,” he said.
One issue that has ceased being a lightning rod in the US-Israel relationship, as it was with the previous administration, is construction in the settlements. In the previous administration, any announcement of settlement construction, or even comments by the prime minister about expanding the settlements, would be met by sharp condemnations either from the White House or the State Department.
No more. This week Netanyahu pledged that no settlement would be dismantled, and from Washington there was not a word.
“The political rhetoric is really irrelevant to us,” he said, stressing that there is political rhetoric on both sides, and that “it doesn’t matter.”
Friedman said that Trump made his position on settlements known: that they are not an obstacle to peace, but that at a certain point continued expansion is unhelpful.
“If you listened to the Obama administration, you would think that the settlements had overtaken the West Bank,” he said. “It’s still under 2% of the territory. I am personally convinced that there’s nothing in the current status quo with regards to settlements that precludes the resolution of the Palestinian [issue].”
Friedman said that the Palestinians were certainly entitled to complain about this issue, and that it was a legitimate area of discussion “along with the other 20 areas of discussion.” The Trump administration, he stressed, “just doesn’t view settlements the way the Obama administration did.”
Friedman said further that he was offended by the way the previous administration used to speak about settlements and terrorism in the same breath.
“I understand that settlements are an issue, and I don’t have the slightest problem with people wanting to discuss settlements in the context of peace negotiations, but settlements and terrorism do not belong in the same sentence,” he stressed. “Not the same paragraph, not the same report, because the killing of innocent life, of innocent civilian life, is so much more abhorrent and repugnant and inconsistent with a peace process than the building of apartments.”
FOR ISRAEL and America, the peace process is not the only issue – or even the central issue – on the agenda these days.
Jerusalem is increasingly concerned about a post-civil war Syria and the likelihood that Iran will create a permanent military presence there, in addition to the pressure its proxy Hezbollah already puts on Israel from Lebanon.
Friedman said that the US and Israel are of the same mind concerning this issue. Despite various press reports to the contrary, Friedman said the US was “extraordinarily receptive” to Israel’s concerns about Iranian penetration into Syria, when a high-level security delegation led by Mossad head Yossi Cohen went to Washington to discuss the issue two weeks ago.
“I think that the Americans fully support the Israeli objectives,” he said, unwilling to discuss, however, how the objective of keeping Iran out of a post-civil war Syria can be reached. “But at least from a macro perspective, the Americans and Israelis are of the same mind.”
How do Trump’s domestic troubles impact his ability to effect change in the Middle East? we asked.
“I don’t think it has any effect at all on his ability to be effective in the Middle East,” Friedman said, adding that regardless of how “he’s treated” in the US, he’s “universally admired and respected” in the Middle East.
“I think he is very well thought of in Egypt and Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and even the Palestinians have a great respect for him,” he said. “He’s perfectly situated to be an effective player here. I don’t think the noise in the United States has any effect on it whatsoever.”
As to some of those domestic issues, such as the recent events in Charlottesville and Trump’s response to them, Friedman said the president has condemned the neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups “in the strongest terms on numerous occasions, and anyone who thinks the president is racist is either not paying attention or is willfully blind to the facts.”
According to Friedman, the real “take-away” from Charlottesville is that a few hundred neo-Nazis and white supremacists hit a jackpot they could never have dreamed of, “because the left-wing media is so obsessed with destroying the president that they are willing to elevate these fringe groups onto the front page, day after day after day, just to hurt the president. That, to me, is astonishing.”
What about Trump’s style? we asked. Is it presidential? “I’m a big fan, because I think he’s a quick study,” he said. “I think he’s not politically correct, which I’m not either. I think he’s a leader. I think he’s a motivator, and I think that where he has run into headwinds has been because the Washington establishment is extraordinarily entrenched, and it doesn’t take well to change.
“In some reasonable period of time,” Friedman predicted, “his qualities will emerge further, and he will rise above the static.
He’s been attacked since the day he took office, but I think he will come out of this just fine.”