By Israeli standards, Donald Trump’s designated Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an extreme right-winger. He might find a place in the settler movement or with Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi Party, but only on its right-wing fringes. He makes Benjamin Netanyahu seem like a left-wing defeatist. From where Friedman stands, most Israelis, never mind most American Jews, are more or less traitors.
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Friedman won’t be the first Jewish ambassador to Israel, of course: Dan Shapiro, Dan Kurtzer and Martin Indyk preceded him. They often clashed with Israeli governments, but usually on behalf of their superiors in Washington and in the understated diplomatic tones in which they were trained. And whatever their opinions, they were well entrenched within the Israeli mainstream.
Friedman would be a different kind of envoy altogether, on the assumption that his appointment is approved, which, to my mind, is far from certain. Friedman has expressed opinions that are considered radical even in today’s more right-wing Israel. He opposes a two-state solution, supports settlements and advocates annexation, has denigrated President Obama as an anti-Semite, questioned the citizenship of Israeli Arabs, compared J Street to Holocaust-era kapos and so on. It’s good he’ll be coming with diplomatic immunity: For some of his articles and statements, Friedman could get arrested by the Israeli police on suspicion of incitement.
Friedman’s appointment would seem to confirm Bennett’s initial jubilation following Trump’s election: This is not an ambassador that a rational U.S. administration would send if it had any plans whatsoever to advance the peace process. This is an ambassador who will please Evangelicals, delight Jewish settlers and bring pleasure to Land of Israel zealots far and wide. In many ways, Friedman will seem like a turbo-charged Ron Dermer, courting the extreme right in his host country while shunning all the rest. It will upset many Israelis, including, possibly, Netanyahu himself. 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.
Friedman’s appointment will displease many Israelis and American Jews, of course: It will drive home just how much they have lost the plot and how Trump’s Presidency could represent transformational change, for the worse, from their point of view. The nomination of Friedman will raise alarm in European capitals and in many non-aligned countries. It is likely to be viewed by Palestinians as a signal that Trump intends to stray from any semblance of an even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to throw his full weight behind Israel. Right-wingers, who tend to believe that a strong hand is the only thing needed to quell the restless natives, will assert that such resoluteness can make Palestinians “accept reality.” But the opposite might also be true, especially if Friedman’s appointment is a harbinger of Trump’s intention to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem: It could weaken Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority – which would please Friedman, as he has often written – and give rise to more extreme leaders who will try to spark a new and violent intifada.
What remains to be seen is whether Friedman’s appointment is a consequence of serious deliberations that have taken into account all the pros and cons – a remote possibility, apparently - or whether it is another impulsive, haphazard move with no rhyme or reason other than to get Friedman off Trump’s back or to please his son in law Jared Kushner, who contributed at least $20,000 to American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva, which Friedman heads. The very fact that Trump is dispatching as ambassador a bankruptcy lawyer so closely identified with a radical yeshiva in the West Bank is mind-boggling in and of itself, but no less mind boggling, almost 40 days after the fact, than Trump’s election.
One thing’s for sure: Just like he did on his way to the White House, Trump has no intention of playing by the rules. He is breaking the mold. Whether intentionally or out of sheer meshugas, Trump is indicating that he pays no attention to customs and precedents, and that he is likely to surprise the world each and every day of his tenure. If you like excitement in life, stay tuned. If you think this is no way to run a nuclear superpower in such a dangerous age, Friedman’s appointment provides no comfort. Stay worried.