Last week, while I was speaking with foreign policy experts in Washington, I received a text from my millennial- age son Adam asking about the newly nominated US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. “Aside from The New York Times painting him as the devil, and J Street portrayed as the moral saviors of Jewish America, what is the real story?” he asked.
Then began the emails from friends, skeptics, and news media wanting to know if Friedman’s nomination is unnecessarily provocative, whether he is a “far-right” extremist, and are his past statements representative of what the Trump administration will actually do? Leaving aside the apocalyptic hyperventilating by the New York Times lead by their J Street allies, my impression of the importance of this nomination was tempered by my bipartisan meetings in Congress and with foreign policy think tanks after the nomination.
Congress’ main concern is not the nomination. It is overwhelmingly focused on Iranian ambitions of hegemony affecting American interests, what to do with the disastrous JCPOA, how to respond to Iranian/Russian complicity in the Syrian genocide, and the delegitimization of Israel.
With the American abstention of the UN Security Council Resolution condemning all settlements over the 1949 Armistice Line as having “no legal validity,” Obama in one stroke did what no president has ever done. When I warned Israeli and American officials early in 2016 about this possibility, I was told it would not happen. So it was no surprise when State Department spokesman John Kirby recently said Israeli settlements are now illegal, a first for any administration.
President Obama in essence legitimized the delegitimizers, the supporters of BDS, breathing new life into this most heinous antisemitic movement. That officially puts the Obama administration on record condemning the Jewish presence in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, in Gilo, in Gush Etzion, in French Hill, and so many other areas that were supposed to be part of land swaps.
The UN abstention, along with the JCPOA, completed President Obama’s long planned vision of realignment for his new Middle East. It both empowered the Islamic theocracy of Iran, a radical Islamist regime, while creating his long sought “daylight” fraying the US-Israel relationship.
If Friedman were interested in my advice, I would recommend he use the ambassador’s pulpit to clearly articulate why the new administration has chosen a different path forward, and explain that past presidents of both parties have failed because they have viewed the conflict as a dispute over borders, an argument about territory, which misses the point: Israel’s neighbors don’t care where Israel’s borders are. They want it not to exist at all.
Friedman needs to make clear that President Obama’s successor does not agree that Israeli settlements are illegal, and is against unilateral UN actions demanding that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem,” as stated in the one-sided UN resolution. This will only embolden those who want to destroy Israel.
Here are three important ideas Friedman should communicate to the international community in his first year in office: 1. Explain that US policy is committed to interpreting international law as it was written, not politically interpreted.
The US believes that Israeli building over the Green Line is not illegal, but is more accurately described as disputed territory. This does not mean territorial concessions are not part of a final resolution, but it does mean Israel has legitimate legal rights that must be weighed in the balance.
2. Explain that the international community has willfully misinterpreted what the authors of UNSC Resolution 242 actually meant: Israel was never supposed to return to the indefensible 1949 lines, and since 242 is the definitive statement about the conflict, the new American administration will interpret this document the way it was intended.
3. Explain that US policy will now insist UNWRA must redefine its definition of refugees to the UNHRC definition of refugees, where no one is counted as a refugee after one generation. American policy is about supporting humanitarian aid, not perpetuating the refugee charade.
I don’t know Friedman, nor do I know if his previous statements regarding the status of communities over the 1949 Armistice Line, or the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, will come to fruition any time soon. President Trump’s senior aide, Kellyanne Conway, said that the embassy move is a “very big priority” for Trump, yet Trump’s foreign policy adviser Walid Phares walked it back.
Like any presidential appointee, you serve at the president’s pleasure, or you won’t serve very long. But this is an unconventional president, and Friedman’s potential influence in American policy is a complete unknown.
The real question is why should moving the embassy to the western side of Jerusalem cause such outrage, as every plan favoring the two-state solution agreed that the western part of Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital.
Promises and timing are always fungible. It would be very easy for the American decision on the embassy to be postponed, as the area the United States owns for a future embassy in Jerusalem is now a hotel housing elderly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whose lease runs another four years.
So will Friedman change US-Israeli policy? Only Donald Trump can make that happen. But what Friedman’s presence in Israel will do is change the hostile tone that has emanated from the US Embassy toward Israel into something more appropriate for a valued American ally.
The author is the director of MEPIN™. He regularly briefs members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, and journalists on issues related to the Middle East.