It is rare for a United States ambassador to challenge his superior, the secretary of state. And it is even rarer for the ambassador to succeed. But that is exactly what David Friedman, the top U.S. diplomat to Israel, did recently.
Taking advantage of his close ties to President Trump, Friedman took issue with the administration’s intention to set a prolonged timeline for relocating the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Friedman reached out to the president, asking to revise Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to wait at least three years until a new embassy is built. He pushed instead for repurposing the existing American Consulate in Jerusalem and having it move-in ready in a year. Tillerson insisted it would not be wise, but Friedman’s view prevailed.
“He is a very influential player in shaping Middle East policy; he has direct access to the president,” said Friedman’s predecessor, Daniel Shapiro, who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. Shapiro, now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, in Israel, added that Friedman “brings the on-the-ground experience” to Trump’s team.
Friedman is very close to the president. A former New York bankruptcy lawyer who used to discuss Israel with Trump on the sidelines of their business meetings, Friedman became his campaign adviser on Israel and then ambassador and top confidant on Middle East issues, surpassing many others who had dedicated their careers to the issue.
He travels back to Washington on a monthly basis, and almost always sits down with Trump. He also holds frequent phone conversations with the president, who had handpicked Friedman to be his first ambassadorial nomination after taking office. In past administrations, direct ties between the president and his ambassadors were reserved for crisis situations requiring real-time intervention. Veterans of U.S.-Israel relations note that except for perhaps Martin Indyk, who had a close relationship with Bill Clinton, a direct line between the embassy in Tel Aviv and the Oval Office is not common practice.
A day after Trump’s bombshell announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, December 7, his ambassador to that country gave an interview to Fox News. Friedman praised the president’s decision fulsomely, and also gave Trump’s symbolic move real-world implications.
“The president didn’t want the Israelis to show up at the bargaining table and be forced to negotiate for something they already had,” he said of the decision to side with Israel’s view of Jerusalem.
Three weeks later, Trump tweeted an echo of Friedman’s words.
…peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
Experts viewed the tweet as once again demonstrating Friedman’s influence on the president: the Oval Office adopting ideas raised by the ambassador in Tel Aviv. Friedman is a proud supporter of Israel’s right wing. He believes its interests are aligned with those of the United States, and government decisions are increasingly reflecting that belief.
To be sure, Friedman’s transition into government was anything but smooth. A long trail of actions and comments painted the future ambassador as a staunch supporter and active fundraiser for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a rejectionist of the two-state solution, and a belligerent critic of left-wing Jews and liberal Americans; he described the dovish lobby J Street as “kapos” and accused Obama of anti-Semitism. A painful Senate confirmation hearing forced Friedman to retract and clarify some of his views, vowing to put aside his personal beliefs when representing the U.S. government in Israel.
To a certain extent, Friedman did scale back his hard-line positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He reportedly warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to be “piggish” with expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and he has reached out to Palestinians, requesting to meet with them. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected Friedman’s request, citing diplomatic protocol that makes the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, not the ambassador in Tel Aviv, the main address for Palestinians. Friedman has met, however, with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and intelligence chief Majid Faraj.
But on most issues, Friedman did not have to abandon his own views in order to align with government policy. Instead, U.S. policy shifted closer to the positions Friedman held. His fingerprint could be seen on Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, on the administration’s refusal to publicly adopt the two-state solution as the only way to resolve the conflict, and on placing the blame for lack of progress squarely on the Palestinian side. In a January tweet after Palestinian terrorists killed an Israeli settler, Friedman wrote, “Look no further to why there is no peace.” Trump, when tweeting about the Palestinians, accused the P.A. of being “no longer willing to talk peace.”
For members of what is known as the “peace camp,” Friedman’s ascent is a source of concern; they view him as a defender of the settlers and as a peace skeptic. But for the Netanyahu government and its supporters, having Friedman close to the president’s ear is nothing but good news.
“For Israel, he is the most important person in the administration, more than Tillerson,” said Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who referred to the secretary of state as a nonplayer on Middle East issues. Ayalon, founder of the advocacy group The Truth About Israel, called Friedman a “warm Jew” and “a Zionist” but noted that the ambassador knows to separate his own views from official U.S. policy.
Friedman has claimed that Israel occupies only 2% of the West Bank; he asked the State Department to limit the use of the term “occupation” in official reports, and referred to the settlements as part of Israel. His presence in Israel, a source closely following U.S.-Israel relations said, “gives some comfort to the Israeli government.” And in fact, since he took office, Israel has experienced less public scolding from the United States when it embarked on settlement expansion programs.
Moreover, Friedman, according to several officials who have been involved in current Middle East policymaking, has been a key voice advocating for taking a tough stance toward the Palestinians, in hope that applying pressure on them will soften their positions in future negotiations.
“David Friedman was, is and always will be a settlement movement advocate first and representative of U.S. interests second,” J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami argued. He singled out Friedman as “one of the causes” for the collapse of the peace process, and said that “his fingerprints are all over the disastrous decisions this administration has made.”
Friedman met in Israel with a J Street leadership delegation, but attempts to set up further meetings went unanswered, according to Ben-Ami.
The organization Americans for Peace Now has launched a campaign aimed at firing Friedman and includes a weekly Friedman Watch in its newsletter. APN spokesman Ori Nir said that within Trump’s Middle East trio — made up of Friedman, special envoy Jason Greenblatt and senior adviser Jared Kushner — Friedman plays the key role. “Given his extremist views, and particularly his wholehearted embrace of the settlement enterprise, his influence on Trump’s policy has been catastrophic,” Nir said.
Others agree that Friedman has emerged as the most powerful adviser in the trio, despite him coming late to the scene after a lengthy confirmation process, and not being an insider in The Trump Organization prior to the campaign. His strong opinions and preset worldview, an official in contact with Trump’s team said, struck the right tone with Trump. “He told the president how to be strong, not how to be diplomatic,” the official said, “and that worked.”
Friedman did not respond to the Forward’s questions on these issues.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was 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.