On Thursday, Donald Trump announced his pick for ambassador to Israel: a bankruptcy lawyer named David Friedman. Friedman, who has been a personal friend of Trump’s for about 15 years, has no government experience to speak of.
What Friedman does have is opinions — specifically, what appears to be the most hard-right approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of any US ambassador to Israel in history.
Friedman has called the two-state solution “a suicidal ‘peace’ with hateful radical Islamists hell bent on Israel’s destruction.” American Jews who support that approach, are in Friedman’s eyes, “worse” than kapos — Jews who helped the Nazis run concentration camps in exchange for special privileges. Here’s the full quote, from a May op-ed in the right-wing Israeli publication Arutz Sheva:
Finally, are [American pro-peace lobby] J Street supporters really as bad as kapos? The answer, actually, is no. They are far worse than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas – it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.
Friedman has, by his own telling, used this comparison repeatedly. When asked to repudiate it earlier in December, he refused. “Mr. Friedman declined to disavow the comments and even intensified the sentiment,” the New York Times reports.
So Friedman openly sides against longstanding American policy towards Israel, insults Jews who disagree with him in some of the most offensive terms possible, and has zero formal diplomatic experience.
It's important to note that his potential boss — secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson — has spent decades working in the Arab world and is likely far more sympathetic to the widespread concerns among its leaders about the settlements. The peace process itself, meanwhile, is completely dormant, and President Barack Obama — both personally empathetic to the Palestinians and willing to have invested enormous amounts of time toward trying to revive the talks — has failed to do so.
It's still hard to imagine a more destabilizing pick for one of the most sensitive diplomatic posts in the world.
Friedman’s writing reveals someone who identifies with the hardest of Israel’s hard right
The column about kapos wasn’t Friedman’s only contribution to Arutz Sheva; in fact, he appeared to be a semi-regular contributor until this summer (when he started advising the Trump campaign on Israel policy). A casual read through Friedman’s column reveals someone who personally identifies with the maximalist positions of the pro-settlement Israeli right, and who has personal disdain for traditional American policy and even elements of the United States.
Friedman’s February 2016 column, titled “End the Two-State Narrative,” argues that the two-state solution has always been a con. The Palestinian Authority, he argues, have tricked Israelis and Americans into believing that they want an independent state in order to extract cash payments from the Americans. The US government goes along with this, he implies, because it is institutionally anti-Semitic.
“The US State Department — with a hundred-year history of anti-Semitism — promotes the payoff of corrupt Palestinians in exchange for their completely duplicitous agreement to support a two-state solution,” Friedman writes. US-brokered negotiations with the Palestinians, he concludes, are “a discussion of an illusory solution in search of a non-existent problem.”
Bear in mind, here, that Friedman has just been tapped to work in the State Department. Essentially, he is accusing the career staff he has just been appointed to supervise of participating in an anti-Semitic extortion racket aimed at weakening the Israeli government.
In his August 2015 column, Friedman argues that Israel should consider the entire West Bank — which he refers to as “Judea and Samaria,” a term favored by the Israeli right — Israeli territory. “Judea and Samaria historically have deep Jewish roots and were validly captured 48 years ago in a defensive war,” he writes. “They are not occupied territory.”
He goes on to argue that Israel should give up on the idea of evacuating West Bank settlements — whose locations are currently interspersed throughout Palestinian communities, making the establishment of a Palestinian state functionally impossible. Instead, Friedman argues, Israel should expand them.
“Does anyone really think that Israel has the political will to do the same to the many hundreds of thousands of residents of Judea and Samaria?” he writes. “As a general rule, we should expand a community in Judea and Samaria where the land is legally available and a residential or commercial need is present – just like in any other neighborhood anywhere in the world.”
The US government has held, since the Reagan administration, that the settlement project is illegitimate and a threat to prospects for peace with the Palestinians. This has been consistent, under both Democratic and Republican presidents. Friedman’s position — settlements are actually great — would radically transform America’s position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from a third party aiming to broker peace to a backer of the most maximalist factions of Israel’s government.
Nor does this exhaust Friedman’s hard-line views.
He has called for stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship if they engage in “seditious” speech. He claimed, “Russia is going to defeat ISIS,” despite the fact that it is barely fighting the Islamic State, and praised Russia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Syria as proof that “Vladimir Putin gets it.” He wants to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a step that every US government has refrained from doing because the future of the disputed city is meant to be resolved as part of direct talks between the two sides for a final status peace deal.
Appointing Friedman, then, is a signal that the Trump administration could attempt to undertake the most radical transformation of US policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in history.
The question now is: Even if Trump and Tillerson don’t embrace Friedman’s approach to the conflict, how much damage can Friedman do on his own?
Given the extreme sensitivity of Israeli-Palestinian issues — a single off-color statement from an important policy official can result in bloodshed — it may not be a risk worth taking.