The soon-to-be-former U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, gave a wide-ranging interview this week to The New York Times bureau chief in Israel, David Halbfinger. Friedman, who will be out of a job on Thursday, elaborated on his pivotal role in moving the pendulum of American policy on Israel and Palestine.
He was a key player spearheading the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and Washington’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital, as well as the State Department’s dropping of the adjective “illegal” when referring to the West Bank settlements. Friedman as the U.S. representative routinely visited them, as the United States cut off nearly all its aid to the Palestinians and booted their diplomats out of Washington.
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“There’s no going back on what we’ve been able to do,” Friedman boasted to Halbfinger. “We’ve changed the narrative dramatically.”
It’s one of those pieces of journalism we’ll return to in the years to come to check whether Friedman’s achievements have had a lasting impact or have been swiftly reversed. But after reading the article over again, I suddenly realized that it’s been years since I’ve read anything of that depth and foresight in an Israeli newspaper.
Friedman is of course giving farewell interviews to the Israeli media as well, but his interlocutors are less worried about the future and whether the ambassador’s legacy will endure. The irony is that this most consequential account of the four years of the most influential foreign diplomat ever in Israel wasn’t ever going to appear in an Israeli newspaper. And the chance of reading any deep perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict in the local media is vanishingly small.
A lot of the discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today resembles those Marxists in the West who argue that “real communism has never been tried,” decades after the real victims of communism resoundingly rejected it. It’s happening thousands of miles from the conflict and increasingly dealing with abstract concepts bearing little relation to what's actually happening on the ground.
Take the recent argument of whether Israel is responsible for vaccinating the Palestinians for COVID-19. It was the usual virtue-signaling between two sides deaf to each other, one brandishing the Fourth Geneva Convention and the responsibilities it places on occupying powers and the other crying “antisemitism” and insisting that all such responsibilities had long ago been delegated to the Palestinian Authority.
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Neither side was actually interested in the practicalities of delivering vaccines to the West Bank and Gaza, the plans having already been put in place by the PA and the quiet cooperation with the Israeli authorities. All that mattered was proxy posturing and point-scoring. And the entire argument was in English.
After all, the debate on the future of the occupied territories and the people living there engrosses only a few tiny groups of people, most of them living far away. They have their own local like-minded interlocutors, but that’s it.
Where Friedman lost
The same is true of the Jewish far right, in Israel and in the Diaspora, with its protestations of loyalty to every inch of the biblical homeland. They’re nearly as boring to most Israelis as well. If you want an idea of how popular David Friedman’s brand of Jewish territorialist ideology is in Israel, check out how quickly all talk of annexing parts of the West Bank disappeared the moment Israel signed its normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates, ostensibly in lieu of annexation.
Much has been said of how the Abraham Accords sidelined the Palestinian cause, but if anything, they marked a failure for the ideological right. Netanyahu tried to use various versions of annexation and “sovereignty” promises in the three elections in 2019 and 2020, but this failed to excite his base or win him the majority he needs for a law making him immune from criminal prosecution.
Israelis may have shifted rightward, but that doesn’t mean there’s a burning desire to annex anything. Things are quite all right as they are for most Israelis, and if the choice is between sovereignty in all the Land of Israel or the shopping malls of Dubai, shopping wins easily.
In fact, Friedman, for all his boasting, lost there. Unlike Netanyahu, who saw annexation as just another election promise, the ambassador actually believes in it, religiously. And in his four years here, Israel didn’t annex an inch. To his frustration.
He’s not the only one who’s frustrated. Earlier this week, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem issued a detailed report saying it considered Israel an apartheid regime, under the legal definition of the word, in all territories controlled by it from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.
Without going into the debate over whether that definition is justified, which would take the space of another column, it’s interesting that the report, while receiving some attention from international news organizations, was all but ignored by the Israeli media save for one obscure mention on one of the three main television channels. Even the newspaper you’re reading saw fit to ignore B’Tselem in its Hebrew edition and made do with an Associated Press report.
There’s a valid argument to be made about how B’Tselem, which in the past brought human-rights violations in the West Bank into the mainstream public debate, has under its current leadership marginalized itself by also becoming an advocacy organization instead of focusing solely on on-the-ground reporting. But at the same time, B’Tselem has shifted because its reports have increasingly come up against widespread apathy in Israel.
Either way, the result is the same. The conflict remains here. The debate on the conflict has been exported.
The view from the Midtown Tunnel
One observation being made about the current election campaign is that it’s almost devoid of any issues besides whether Benjamin Netanyahu should remain prime minister. That was equally true of the last three campaigns in 2019 and 2020.
But the disappearance of what was once considered the most crucial issue for Israel’s future – not only during election campaigns but also in the political debate and in the media in general – has been happening for years, basically since the end of the second intifada and the 2005 Gaza disengagement. Political parties, even those that still call themselves left-wing, aren’t talking about it because they know there are simply no votes in it.
The issue is covered by journalists in the immediate sense, usually when acts of violence are committed in the West Bank or rockets are launched from Gaza. But that’s where the horizon ends. Even in the days of the Obama administration, the occasional desultory round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians was largely met with incredulity by the Israeli media.
And perhaps rightly so. After all, nothing came of it. And nothing on the ground has changed for years, in between short and sharp outbreaks of warfare in Gaza. We’ve only had the grinding daily reality of intensifying occupation, and yes, apartheid, in the West Bank areas under Israeli control and the stagnating corruption of Fatah rule in those areas – and Hamas despotism in Gaza.
It’s easy to blame Israelis for being either too nationalist or too apathetic, and the Israeli media for being superficial. But groups like B’Tselem that want this to be on the agenda are kidding themselves if they think they can finally get Israelis to pay notice by increasing the volume in foreign languages. Interest in the conflict abroad is steadily decreasing and won’t return with the arrival of the Biden administration or the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
If Joe Biden as president confronts the Israeli government on anything, it will be on the United States returning to the nuclear agreement with Iran. And the wider diplomatic community has much bigger fish to fry, such as avoiding economic warfare between the West and China and achieving an international consensus on addressing the climate crisis.
In private, Western diplomats admit that their governments have written off the prospects of solving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Unless there’s a major outbreak of violence or Israel actually annexes parts of the West Bank, and perhaps not even then, the world will continue to sit on its hands.
There is no substitute to the frustrating and Sisyphean task of trying to confront Israelis with the reality and future implications of the occupation. After all, no one is going to force them to end the occupation. It’s up to them. And they’ll have to be convinced here in Israel.
In Friedman’s interview (this part not published in The Times but on Halbfinger’s Twitter account), the ambassador mentions a half-baked plan for achieving “contiguity” for Palestinians in the West Bank where they could “drive from Hebron to Nablus and never see an Israeli.” He likens this to his daily commute back in Manhattan through the Midtown Tunnel, where “I never saw the river once.”
This is the level of discourse on Israel-Palestine. It may as well be happening in a tunnel under the East River.