Donald Trump’s choice of bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman for ambassador to Israel may possibly signal a dramatic policy move in the direction of the Israeli right. Or it might not. It depends on how you read the tea leaves. The messages coming out of Trump Tower are unusually scrambled, even for that gold-plated hothouse.
Friedman, as has been widely reported, is a firm hawk on Israeli policy. He openly opposes the two-state model of Israeli-Palestinian peace. He’s been known to call J Street members “kapos.” He’s a supporter of West Bank settlements, and even serves as volunteer president of a major settlers’ fundraising group, American Friends of Bet El Institutions. And he’s long favored moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a topic that’s been much in the news lately since Trump aide Kellyanne Conway announced that Trump had promised the embassy relocation and would certainly keep the promise.
On the other hand, ambassadors don’t make policy. Their job is to communicate and execute the policies adopted by their bosses. In the case of Friedman and Israel, his bosses will primarily be three people: the president; the secretary of state, every ambassador’s direct boss; and the defense secretary, whose agency, the Pentagon, conducts the most active, ongoing relationship with Israel of any U.S. government department.
So what do we know about the Middle East views of those three? Starting with Trump, we don’t know much. That’s why we’re having this discussion. The only thing we know for sure is that he isn’t much for firm policies. He’s capable of saying one thing in one moment and the exact opposite the next day, or even the next sentence.
He takes his inconsistency to extremes. Remember, he campaigned vigorously on a promise to separate government from big money, Wall Street and Goldman Sachs in particular. And the next thing you know he’s got three Goldman Sachs people in senior government economic posts, including Treasury secretary.
No less significant, our president-elect is a guy who doesn’t know much about history, geography or strategic affairs, and he’s made it plain that he’s not terribly interested in boning up. As a result, he’ll have to delegate much of both day-to-day decisions and long-term strategy to his key subordinates. Which brings us to the nominees for State and Defense.
Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, doesn’t have a policy record in public office because he’s never held office. He’s spent his entire working life with Exxon/Mobil, where he’s now chief executive. What we do know is, first of all, that he has a strong relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This suggests that Tillerson is a big-time manager and leader who doesn’t devote much of his strategic thinking to sentiment or morality, which are typically the main factors driving an individual’s attachment to Israel. What’s more, Western oil companies, of which Exxon/Mobil is the world’s biggest, generally tend to align themselves as closely as possible with Arab countries and their interests, because — to paraphrase 1930s bank robber Willie Sutton — that’s where the oil is. Now, all this doesn’t add up to a lot of hard evidence, but it is very strongly suggestive of which way the nominee will lean.
Where we do have solid information is on the secretary of defense-designate, retired Marine Corps general James Mattis. The defense secretary is in charge of managing what is perhaps the most important element of the U.S.-Israel alliance: the military relationship — arms sales, training, intelligence sharing, threat assessment, troop deployment and much more.
And what do we know about Mattis’s relationship with Israel? He served from 2010 to 2013 as chief of the U.S. Central Command, in charge of America’s military presence in the Arab Middle East. In July 2013, four months after leaving CentCom and entering civilian life, Mattis told an audience at the prestigious Aspen Institute that he “paid a military-security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”
He also came out strongly in favor of Israel finding a way to extricate itself from the West Bank, which is the opposite of what lawyer Friedman advocates. If Israel continues to control the territory, Mattis said, “either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid. That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country.”
It comes as a shock for pro-Israel audiences to hear leaders like Mattis speak of America paying a price, taking a hit for its support of Israel. But it shouldn’t shock. The sentiment, while rarely voiced aloud for fear of scandal, is pretty close to common knowledge and conventional wisdom in the American military command.
In fact, pretty the same thing was said by Mattis’s predecessor as CentCom chief, then-Army general David Petraeus. The difference is that Petraeus didn’t say it at an academic conference after retirement, but while in uniform, as serving chief of CentCom, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples” in the region, Petraeus told the senators.
Petraeus, you’ll remember, was on Trump’s short list for secretary of state, but lost out to Tillerson.
Will Trump keep his promise and move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, after Tillerson and Mattis sit him down and explain the likely consequences? Trump will start by voicing doubt about the link. And he’ll question whether Arab anger at the embassy move will really amount to much. What can they do to us? Tillerson and Mattis will then remind the president about the 2005 cartoon jihad, that wave of anti-Western rioting, arson and mob violence that erupted across the Arab and Muslim world in protest of a Danish newspaper’s publishing a dozen cartoon depictions of Muhammad. They’ll suggest to him, with the backing of intelligence services, that the response to a Jerusalem embassy move would make the cartoon jihad look like schoolyard horseplay.
You might think the president would dismiss the intelligence agencies’ findings, as he did when they reported on Russian election hacking. But that was different. It was about him and his pride. This is different. He has no personal investment in Jerusalem. Just a campaign promise.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).