Oh, the hawkish corner of American Jewry is jubilant with President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of David Friedman to be his ambassador to Israel. The Republican Jewish Coalition is kvelling on Twitter. Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, declared that Friedman — a bankruptcy lawyer with no diplomatic experience — has “the potential to be the greatest U.S. ambassador to Israel ever.”
Why not? Friedman has decried President Obama, denigrated liberal Jews and dismissed any notion of the two-state solution, while promising to work in lockstep with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government. After eight years of frosty relations with the White House and intermittent attempts to forge a negotiated settlement to the nearly half-century-old conflict, Netanyahu’s supporters here are breathing yu-uge sighs of relief, certain that their man in Jerusalem will now be left alone.
I suggest that they — and Netanyahu — be careful what they wish for.
There may be some short-term, symbolic “victories” if Trump and Friedman actually follow through on their promises, especially if they fulfill the dangerous pledge to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Even though the location of the embassy is not a pressing issue for most Israelis, it is for some hard core American Jews and the evangelical Christians who like to say they love Israel (in their own way.) And if the move inflames the Arab world and further alienates European allies? Politically, among his followers, that will be seen as a notch in Trump’s gilded belt.
But I’m willing to bet that Netanyahu is scrambling right now. He is one of the craftiest tacticians in world politics today, with what seems like a single aim to maintain power as long as possible, and given the many years he has spent as Prime Minister, you have to acknowledge that he’s awfully good at it. He’s held on for so long because he skillfully knows how to position himself between Israel’s fractious extremes, playing one against the other, and then applying those dance moves to his engagement with successive American presidents.
And President Obama has been a useful foil. Every time Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry pushed the Israelis to stop building more settlements on land meant to be reserved for a Palestinian state, Netanyahu could look like the tough guy standing up to American pressure, while turning to his more right-wing rivals with a shrug, as if to say: See what I’m up against?
As Chemi Shalev wrote in Haaretz: “The prime minister is always concerned more about his right-wing flanks than his opposition on the left: The last thing he needs is a U.S. ambassador who supports his most feared rivals.”
But that’s what Netanyahu has in Friedman: A man whose positions are more extreme than even official Israel’s. He said, for instance, that he would support annexation of parts of the West Bank, words that you don’t hear from Netanyahu’s mouth (publicly, at least.) But the prime minister’s coalition partner and chief rival on his right, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, isn’t hesitant at all to call for annexation of land already settled by Israeli Jews. “It’s time for a new approach,” Bennett told a group of Jewish journalists in Israel recently.
What Netanyahu also won’t say — but is demonstrably true — is that Israel has fared well under Obama’s leadership. The prime minister’s aggressive campaign against the Iran nuclear deal didn’t cost him much politically. The two nations signed the most expensive military aid package in history (albeit with a few notable Israeli concessions.) So far, Obama has taken Israel’s side in an often-hostile United Nations and elsewhere. And as Netanyahu himself admitted, Israel does “what it wants” when it comes to the settlement project.
Friedman’s appointment could upend the balancing act that Netanyahu has perfected over the years, in so many spheres. If his appointment is approved, Friedman’s vocal and offensive disdain for liberal Jews could tip the scales on issues of religious and political pluralism; it could damage Netanyahu’s attempts to proclaim that he represents all the Jewish people; and it could especially threaten the already frayed relations between this Israeli government and the growing number of American Jews who feel alienated from or rejected by it.
Perhaps most threatening of all, the unpredictable Trump administration may force Netanyahu to do what he has resisted for so long: To say what he really thinks ought to happen, to enunciate a vision for how his people with live with their neighbors.
As Bennett said, “The big question is not what Trump will do. It’s what Bibi asks for,” using Netanyahu’s nickname. “We have to say for the first time in history, what do we want?”
And Netanyahu might have to answer.
Contact Jane Eisner at email@example.com or on Twittter, @Jane _Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.