It’s been partially drowned out by the controversy over Rex Tillerson, but President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has caused quite an uproar.
Friedman is a proud and avowed opponent of a Palestinian state, the only solution to the conflict in the Middle East. He’s a proponent of settlement building on occupied Palestinian land, which he argues isn’t really Palestinian land at all. And he doesn’t seem to believe that negotiating with the Palestinians is even possible, let alone in the best interests of the United States and Israel.
The two-state solution, Friedman wrote in an Arutz Sheva column, is “an illusion that serves the worst intentions of both the United States and the Palestinian Arabs. It has never been a solution, only a narrative. But even the narrative itself now needs to end.”
If Trump wanted a hardliner to represent the United States in Israel, he definitely has his man in Friedman, someone who is even to the right of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. J Street, the left-leaning alternative to AIPAC, couldn’t be more disturbed by Friedman’s nomination. President George W. Bush’s former ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, described Friedman as “unqualified for the position, but more important, he holds extreme views on the very issues that he will need to manage as a diplomat.”
As a supporter of the creation of an independent Palestinian state, I have to admit that I was initially troubled by Friedman’s nomination. The U.S. ambassador to Israel is more than just a regular ambassadorship; it’s part diplomat, part crisis manager, and part therapist when a personality dispute erupts between U.S. and Israeli officials (if you don’t believe me, just ask Daniel Shapiro, the current ambassador, who has had to play marriage counselor between Obama and Netanyahu). Anybody who believes that continued settlement construction deep in the West Bank is a good move will arrive untrusted by Palestinian officials on the other side of the Green Line.
But then I got to thinking: perhaps Friedman’s pick might not be all that bad.
There is no question that the ambassador to Israel will have an integral role in any peace process with the Palestinians, but the recent history of Mideast peacemaking shows that presidents have a habit of tapping special envoys to actually do the nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts, dirty work of shuttle diplomacy. These are the people who spend long hours in conference rooms, write the terms of reference, go back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian officials, suggest alternatives when negotiating positions need to be bridged, and present those alternatives to the other side. In fact, some of the most prominent peace negotiators over the last 20 years weren’t ambassadors at all: Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross, George Mitchell, Aaron David Miller, and John Kerry. Every one of those individuals, either due to either his seniority or his unparalleled knowledge of the conflict, had the freedom to maneuver and talk with all sides in the dispute, whether in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, or Washington.
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, in contrast, played a supporting role, calming the Israelis when they got nervous and bringing their concerns to his colleagues in the U.S. government.
Now, there is always a chance that Trump will break with precedent on Israel-Palestine as he’s done with China and Taiwan. Perhaps David Friedman will be a super-ambassador, responsible not only for the Israel file but for reforming U.S. policy towards the conflict at large. But the more likely possibility is that Trump, like Clinton and Obama before him, will leave the details of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy to a special envoy. And if he takes that course, Friedman will be just another supporting player in the drama.
No doubt Friedman’s nomination is controversial; he’ll have a lot to answer for during his confirmation hearing. Yet taking the glass-half-full view, you couldn’t ask for a better person to win the trust of Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition, the same trust that could keep Israel at the negotiating table when the diplomatic process stalls.