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‘Sledgehammer:’ Trump’s ambassador to Israel hits hard in new memoir

Even before he was confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Israel in 2017, David Friedman tangled with Democrats, calling members of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street “kapos” and questioning long-held U.S. support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his new memoir, Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer and campaign advisor to Donald Trump before he became president, opens a window into some of the more contentious episodes of his nearly four years at the U.S. embassy. Those years are also marked by milestones for which Friedman has been feted — and even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize — including the moving of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the signing of the Abraham Accords.

The book, titled “Sledgehammer: How Breaking with the Past Brought Peace to the Middle East,” is scheduled for release Tuesday. A copy was obtained by the Forward.

Here are some highlights.

A problematic prayer?

Friedman writes that he was “flabbergasted” by an investigation into whether he violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from engaging in partisan political activity while on duty, for asking a top Orthodox rabbi in Israel to pray for Donald Trump’s reelection.

“At one point I asked how it possibly could be illegal for a government employee to ask anything of a priest, rabbi, or minister in a private meeting,” Friedman recalls of the inquiry, which was conducted by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency.

Ambassador Friedman arrived to the Kotel, May 15, 2017

Ambassador David Friedman on his first official visit to the Western Wall on May 15, 2017 Image by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

Friedman, who is Orthodox, had asked Rabbi Baruch Dov Povarsky for a blessing for another Trump term during a visit to the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak in April 2019. The request had been recorded. “I explained that this was a private meeting organized by my son with no governmental purpose, no one else attended except my bodyguards, and I was unaware of the recordings or its release to the media,” he writes.

He was later cleared of any wrongdoing related to the incident, though the special counsel’s office found that Friedman had violated the Hatch Act closer to the 2020 election when he suggested in a media interview that a Joe Biden victory could lead to an increase in Iran’s “malign activity” and its likelihood of acquiring nuclear weapons.

Taking on the Squad

Friedman details his efforts to convince Israel to block two progressive congresswomen from visiting the country in 2019. Democrats Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, prominent members of a group of House members known as “The Squad,” both support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. A 2017 Israeli law bans foreigners who publicly support BDS from entering the country.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had decided to apply the law to Tlaib and Omar, reversing his initial decision to allow the trip, which he had justified as a reflection of his respect for Congress.

Friedman writes that when Trump first learned of Israel’s decision to permit the trip “he thought Israel was crazy.” The former president, he relates, “could not understand why Israel would open its borders to people he considered antisemites.”

Friedman recalls that he “wrestled” with the issue, contemplating whether the backlash he would receive by supporting the initial Israeli decision to allow the congresswomen into the country would be outweighed by the opportunity to educate them about the conflict.

But he said that when he saw Omar and Tlaib’s itinerary, which referred to Israel as Palestine, he thought it “was a bridge too far.” He passed it on to Ron Dermer, then Israel’s ambassador to the U.S, in hopes that his Israeli counterpart could persuade Netanyahu to change course.

Trump later tweeted, “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit.”

The blowback was intense, Friedman writes, with House Democrats calling for him to be censured and the special counsel’s office investigating whether he had engaged in partisan activity. Friedman calls it an attempt to “intimidate” him.

Bipartisan — to a point

While Friedman rejects all accusations of partisanship during his years as ambassador, his memoir includes his recollections of scolding of pro-Israel House Democrats and defending his contention that Republicans are more supportive of Israel.

“While bipartisanship is important, it is not worth the price of sinking to the lowest common point of consensus,” he writes of the absence of Democrats at the opening ceremony of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.

Friedman also criticizes former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for inviting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to a 2020 Jerusalem ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which many world leaders were expected to attend. Friedman writes that he managed to get then Vice President Mike Pence to come, but was “furious” when he learned that the Democratic speaker was on the guest list.

“You beg me to bring Pence as the representative of your most important ally, who is only doing this out of his love for Israel, but you don’t have the decency to inform me that you’re going around my back to invite the person responsible for Trump’s impeachment!” Friedman recalls telling Rivlin’s staff in a tense phone conversation.

Vice President of the United States Mike Pence meets President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem January 23, 2018.

Former Vice President Mike Pence and former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the president’s residence in Jerusalem on Jan. 23, 2018. Image by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

Friedman writes that he then blasted Rivlin’s aides when they asked that Pence meet with Rivlin one-on-one. “All I could do was express my disgust,” he writes, recalling how he fumed at them: “I didn’t think it was possible to politicize the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz but you succeeded in doing so.”

Contrasting Trump and Netanyahu

Netanyahu and Trump maintained a genial relationship until Trump blasted the prime minister for congratulating Biden on winning the presidency. Friedman writes that the two former heads of state were aligned politically, but not personally.

They “don’t have much in common” beyond their embrace of populism, Friedman writes. “While Trump is instinctive and very close with his staff, engendering enormous loyalty, Netanyahu is far more cerebral and cautious, willing to review data and more data exhaustively before making a decision.”

And Friedman takes issue with the commonly held assumption that Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights as a preelection gift to Netanyahu in 2019 — even though Trump himself described it in these terms in an interview with Israeli journalist Barak Ravid.

“There was never a stated White House objective to help Netanyahu get reelected,” Friedman writes. “The president fully understood the security and geopolitical benefits of recognition but he was concerned that this would be perceived as a pre-election gift to Netanyahu. I responded that this decision was not being recommended as a political gift for Bibi. Rather, it should be viewed as being in our national interest.”

Image by Getty Images

Friedman also recalls the difficult task of trying to convince the prime minister to accept the U.S. administration’s decision to invite Benny Gantz, who had challenged Netanyahu for the premiership, to the rollout of the Trump peace plan in 2020. He also details the fraught conversations that followed Netanyahu’s use — against the wishes of the Trump administration — of a White House podium to promote his plan to annex Jewish communities in the West Bank.

Friedman has kind words for Netanyahu. He praises the former prime minister as thoughtful and calm in the face of uncertainty, recalling the occasion when he and the former prime minister got stuck in an elevator for 10 minutes. “Bibi continued to speak with me as if nothing has changed,” he writes, using Netanyahu’s nickname, and confessing that he himself was on the verge of panic and barely heard a word of what the prime minister had said.

The ‘kapos’ comment

As a campaign adviser to Trump, Friedman at one point in 2016 wrote that J Street -– a pro-Israel group very critical of the occupation — is “worse than kapos.” He apologized for the description as several left-leaning Jewish groups highlighted it in their efforts to block his confirmation.

In his memoir, Friedman calls the “kapos” comparison a “dumb mistake” and a “painful lesson.” But he also accuses the liberal pro-peace group of lobbying the U.S. government to thwart the Jewish state. “My words were a huge tactical mistake because they shifted the discussion away from the substance of J Street’s attacks on Israel,” he writes, adding that it gave his detractors an “easy opening.”

Image by YouTube

Friedman writes that he wanted to critique J Street’s approach to Israel at his confirmation hearing, but that his White House advisers counseled against it, so he opted for a more measured response. He also met J Street’s senior leadership during their visit to Israel later that year, but he never sought a truce with them.

Friedman also describes a tense exchange with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform movement, after the Israeli government – pressured by Orthodox parties – suspended the Kotel deal, which designates space there for various streams of Jewish practice.

Jacobs called the suspension of the deal a “betrayal” and demanded Friedman intervene on behalf of Jews in the U.S., where the Reform movement is larger than any other branch of Judaism. Friedman argued that it’s wrong to expect Israel to adopt liberal American principles when liberal Jews hardly visit Israel. “Rick, Israel is a democracy,” Friedman recalls telling Jacobs. “If your side wants to change Israel, move here! There are almost no Reform Jews in Israel.”

Israel is home to dozens of Reform congregations and it is the goal of the movement, according to the Union for Reform Judaism’s website, to “increase each Reform Jew’s relationship with Israel and make Israel a core component of every Reform Jew’s identity.”

’We paid for it’

Friedman writes about a heated exchange — which he describes as “frightening” — with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders over Israel’s military response to Hamas rockets from Gaza. The setting was a meeting between the two before the future ambassador’s confirmation hearing.

“Israel kills many more people in Gaza than Gazans kill Israelis,” and “is blowing up hospitals,” Friedman recalls Sanders saying.

He also recollects Sanders calling Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip “an occupation.”

At that point, Friedman writes that he got angry too, asking Sanders whether he agrees that Israel has a right to respond to Hamas rocket fire targeting Israeli civilians?

“Well, Israel has Iron Dome, which we paid for,” Sanders responded, according to Friedman, referring to Israel’s missile defense system, which is supported by American dollars.

Friedman writes that the senator, an independent, handed Friedman a letter asking him to respond within a week whether he agrees with Sanders “that financial aid to Gaza was more important than aid to Israel.”

Matt Duss, a foreign policy advisor to Sanders, declined to discuss the details of the meeting, saying Sanders believes in “honoring confidentiality” of private conversations.

Duss added, “Sen. Sanders’ well-known, often stated and widely published view is that Israelis and Palestinians both have the right to live with security and dignity. David Friedman, on the other hand, lied under oath to the U.S. Senate in his confirmation hearing, so people can decide for themselves who they trust.”

This post was updated

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