On December 15, President-elect Donald Trump announced his choice for U.S. ambassador to Israel. “The bond between Israel and the United States runs deep, and I will ensure there is no daylight between us when I’m president,” Trump stated before introducing “David Friedman [who] will maintain the special relationship between our two countries.”
Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who previously served as legal counsel for Trump, wasn’t a surprise choice. At Palestine Square, we wrote about Friedman during the presidential campaign after Trump named him as one of his advisors on Israel, noting that the attorney could end up being ambassador to Israel were Trump to win the election.
Career diplomats take up their posts without any perceived bias. Even non-diplomatic presidential appointees refrain from expressing their personal opinions. Friedman has no diplomatic experience, but he does have a lengthy record of undiplomatic statements revealing his bias against Palestinians. If approved by the Senate, Friedman’s appointment would convey official U.S. contempt for Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims. Any remaining pretense of America’s evenhandedness and good-faith mediation between Israelis and Palestinians would likely evaporate if Friedman becomes ambassador.
Friedman wasted no time making clear what kind of ambassador he would be, announcing that he would expect to work “from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” Last week, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway (who will reportedly serve in the White House) stated that moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is “a big priority” for the new administration. Campaign promises to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem are nothing new, but actually relocating the embassy is now, for the first time, a real possibility that would prejudge the issue of Jerusalem and convey America’s blessing for Israel’s 1967 occupation and annexation of Arab East Jerusalem and its discriminatory policies against the city’s Palestinian residents. Moreover, the proposed embassy site encompasses expropriated Palestinian refugee property. Despite acts of Congress and Israeli pleas, past U.S. presidents have avoided moving the embassy precisely to avoid appearing to side with Israel’s claims to the contested city. If Friedman and Conway are to be believed, the Trump administration will gladly play the role of Israel’s partisan.
While the U.S. officially opposes illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank as an obstacle to a two-state solution, Friedman supports the expansion of settlements and dismisses the idea of a Palestinian state and the two-state solution. Friedman puts his money where his mouth is as president of American Friends of Bet El Institution, which has funded the colonization of privately owned Palestinian land. Speaking earlier this year to Ha’aretz, Friedman relayed that Trump “does not think” Palestinian statehood “is an American imperative.” Trump, he added, might even endorse Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, a position Friedman favors, given his view that there aren’t enough Palestinians in the West Bank to endanger a Jewish majority.
Furthermore, Friedman has echoed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position that the removal of Jewish settlers from the West Bank is tantamount to ethnic cleansing, even though their presence clearly violates the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition on transferring the occupier’s populations to occupied territory. In Friedman’s worldview, Palestinians can either make do with a façade of “economic peace” under occupation, or accept second-class citizenship under enforced Israeli sovereignty.
Friedman has clearly expressed this worldview in his columns in Arutz Sheva, an online news site owned by the Bet El settlement. We’ve previously cataloged Friedman’s militant expressions, which range from absurd to bigoted:
Friedman has accused Palestinian citizens of Israel of “seditious behavior”; quoted the Bible to chastise Jewish critics of Israel as “‘destroyers . . . from within’”; and boasted that Jerusalem is Israel’s exclusive dominion because the city was a Jewish capital “at least 600 years before the Muslim religion came into existence!” The only Israeli policy Friedman finds objectionable is the portrayal of settlement construction as a response to violent Palestinian unrest. Such a policy, Friedman lamented, signals that the occupied West Bank does indeed belong to the Palestinians and that violence will be rewarded with a cessation of settlements. Luckily for him, Israel continues to expand settlements, as it should “in all cases,” Friedman advised.
Friedman has also accused President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry of engaging in “blatant anti-Semitism” for their alleged failure to condemn Palestinian violence against Israelis. Ironically, Trump’s campaign has received praise from countless anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, some of whose ravings Trump has inadvertently retweeted. Most disturbingly, Trump enlisted the aid of Steve Bannon (soon to be a senior presidential advisor), who previously managed the Breitbart website, which features anti-Semitic content. For all that, Friedman never once found reason to criticize the Trump campaign or keep his distance. Instead, he implausibly argued that the American left rather than the xenophobic “alt-right” (alternative right) movement is the culprit behind this resurgent anti-Semitism.
Friedman apparently subscribes to a peculiar definition of anti-Semitism that focuses solely on criticism of Israeli policy, while overlooking anti-Jewish animus, provided that the critic is still pro-Zionist. Hence, his denunciation of liberal American Jews who support a Palestinian state as “far worse than kapos” during World War II (who were coerced by the Nazis to betray their fellow Jews), accusing them of betraying Israel “from the comfort of their secure American sofas.”
Friedman’s extreme rhetoric speaks for itself. As ambassador — and with allies in the administration who share his militant Zionism — Friedman would serve less as a diplomat and more as a cheerleader of the Israeli far-right. His very presence would run counter to diplomatic protocol and undercut America’s diplomatic mission by effectively transforming the American embassy into an arm of the most hawkish wing of the American pro-Israel lobby and the settler movement. Given the inevitable damage to American credibility in the Middle East and Friedman’s defamation of liberal American Jews, the reasonable solution would be for the Senate to block his appointment.
Left-wing American Jews and at least two Jewish Democratic congressmen have already expressed their disapproval of Friedman and might lobby against him alongside American Arab and Muslim organizations. Democrats would need only one Republican to flip on the committee vote, but it might be wishful thinking to imagine senators blocking his confirmation given that they’re famous for passing one-sided pro-Israel resolutions and being competitive in their condemnation of the Palestinians. Friedman is simply the uglier face of a political establishment that brooks no dissent from pro-Zionist orthodoxy and conveys contempt towards the very notion that Palestinians have rights.
If there’s any silver lining at all, it’s that we can all stop pretending that the U.S. is committed to being an honest broker or supporting Palestinian self-determination. Under Trump, the U.S. is to be an unabashed enabler of a half-century of Israeli occupation and apartheid, and nearly seventy years of dispossession.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a writer for the Institute for Palestine Studies based in Tunis. He previously served as Online Content Editor for IPS-USA in Washington, D.C.