President-Elect Donald Trump’s decision to appoint David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel is brewing into a Jewish battle royale for supporters and detractors of the two-state solution.
For the Jewish left, Friedman appointment has quickly emerged as a banner for rallying troops already concerned with the impact the Trump presidency will have on the Israeli - Palestinian conflict. On the right, Trump’s choice of a pro-settlement bankruptcy lawyer as chief envoy to Israel is seen as ushering in a new era of settlement expansion and changing the fundamentals of American policy toward the conflict.
The importance of Friedman’s appointment cannot be overstated, according to former ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer.
“Every thing an ambassador says and does has an impact on policy,” said Kurtzer. He added that usually an ambassador implements policies set by the administration, but Friedman seems intent on forging his own stands. To prove the point, Kurtzer referred to Friedman’s comment in the official statement on his appointment in which he expressed his intention to work “from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
“The president hasn’t been sworn in yet, the Secretary of State hasn’t spoken about this, and he’s already talking about the policy he is going to change,” said Kurtzer. “This is unheard of.”
But what Kurtzer and others see as an alarming development, pro-settler activists view as a blessing, hoping it will herald a shift in American policy toward the settlements and Jerusalem.
“Friedman has a deep love for all of the land and people of Israel, including those in Judea and Samaria,” said Oded Revivi, spokesman for the settlement council Yesha.
“David Friedman is the first ambassador that tells the truth and promotes the truth,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America in an interview. This truth, according to Klein, is that “the Arabs want to continue killing Jews” and they refuse to accept Israel as a Jewish state.
Klein also expressed his conviction that with Trump as president and Friedman as ambassador, the Israeli government will be free to expand building within the boundaries of the existing settlements without the U.S. administration limiting its actions. “We will now see the prime minster building more because he will no longer have the fear of consequences imposed by the United States,” Klein said.
Friedman, who was largely unknown in the organized Jewish community before joining the Trump campaign, has been reaching out to Jewish officials recently, even before being announced as Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel. But in the meetings and discussions, Friedman has made no attempt to bridge the gaps with the liberal wing of the community. Last week he met with members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York and laid out, according to a Jewish leader who attended the meeting, his belief that America should move beyond discussing the issue of occupation and highlight what he sees as Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state.
The newly appointed ambassador, speaking in a closed forum in early December, was given the opportunity to retract his comments, made before the elections, stating that the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby J Street “are worse than kapos.” Friedman chose to stand behind his accusation comparing the left wing lobby’s actions to those of Jews who cooperated with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
J Street, under attack, sought to leverage Friedman’s disdain to the group into a mobilizing and fundraising effort.
“Trump’s newest pick said something about you,” read an email soliciting donations sent out by J Street Friday morning. The pitch, according to officials within the group, brought in tens of thousands of dollars within a few hours.
But the group is hoping for more than an end-of-year fundraising bonanza.
Since the announcement Thursday night, J Street has been working to mobilize its supporters in an effort to derail Friedman’s Senate confirmation. With Republicans in full control of the Senate, it is a tall order, which will require all Democrats to vote against Friedman’s confirmation as well as at least three Republican senators who will have to cross party lines.
J Street pitch targets mainstream Republicans warning them of the consequences a change in policy driven by Friedman would entail. “Given that Mr. Friedman’s hostility to a two-state solution is such a departure from longstanding bipartisan policy, we’re already starting to see real discomfort among many lawmakers from both parties about Mr. Friedman’s positions,” said Dylan Williams, the group’s vice president for government affairs.
One lawmaker to already speak out against Friedman is Democrat Jerrold Nadler from New York. “Mr. Friedman’s views and comments about a two-state solution are not only a total break from decades of American and Israeli policy, but are fundamentally out-of-step with the views of the majority of American Jews,” Nadler said in a statement. He noted that both J Street and AIPAC support a two-state solution.
John Yarmuth of Kentucky joined Nadler in denouncing Friedman’s appointment on Sunday.
But those looking, either in fear or in expectation, for a shift in American policy taking place in the near future as Friedman assumes his position, may have to wait.
On Friday, the Trump transition team already put a damper on Friedman’s promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Jason Miller, Trump’s senior adviser made clear that while the president-elect still firmly supports moving the embassy to Jerusalem, it would be “premature” to present a timetable for such a move.
Meaning Friedman may have to at least start his term as ambassador in the same old Tel-Aviv office as his predecessors.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.