Analysis

With Annexation Comment, Friedman Just Made Netanyahu’s Life More Difficult

For years, the prime minister has cited U.S. pressure to stymie settlement-building in the West Bank. The American ambassador just took away that excuse

Benjamin Netanyahu and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman in Jerusalem, December 2017. This is a rare moment when Friedman is to the left of the Israeli prime minister.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman is no fool. You don’t have to understand much about business to realize that keeping Donald Trump afloat for over two decades through bankruptcy after bankruptcy, as Friedman did, was an act of financial and legal wizardry.

>> With one word, Trump's envoy sets stage for Israeli annexation of West Bank | Analysis

Friedman is also a man who has never tried very hard to hide his political views on Israel. His characterization, in a column he wrote for far-right outlet Arutz Sheva in 2016, of the pro-Israel organization J Street as being “far worse than Kapos ... smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas” is just one blatant example. (Note that this was a piece he himself wrote, one in which he could reflect on what he was saying before hitting “Send.”)

So, if anything, Friedman was on his best behavior — for him at least — when he was expertly interviewed last week by David Halbfinger in The New York Times. He was speaking not as a private citizen but as the U.S. ambassador, sitting in his official residence (now moved to Jerusalem). And from his point of view, he was making a concession. Friedman fervently believes Israel has a right to all of the West Bank, but in the interview he was prepared to accept that “Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” This was Friedman at his most moderate.

There is a tendency among journalists and diplomats to see Friedman as Benjamin Netanyahu’s ideological partner. The truth is that while they are extremely well coordinated — probably on an unprecedented level for ambassador and leader of a foreign country in which the ambassador is stationed — Friedman is clearly to the right of Netanyahu. And while there is significant overlap, he adheres to a different ideology.

Friedman is a long-standing supporter of the religious settler movement and has even been a fundraiser for some of the most hard-core settlements in the West Bank. As far as he is concerned, the Jewish people has every right to every inch of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and relinquishing that land is both forbidden by the Torah and an existential threat to the Jewish state.

This makes him a member of an extremely vocal but relatively small community that probably numbers no more than 10 percent of American Jewry. It isn’t a large proportion of Israeli society either. The party that best represents his views, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, received less than four percent of the total vote in the April 9 Knesset election.

The bizarre sequence of events that made Trump president and his bankruptcy lawyer U.S. ambassador to Israel is, from Friedman’s perspective, divine intervention: A window of opportunity opening from the heavens to perpetuate Israel’s hold over Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, is a secular Jewish nationalist and pragmatist. He doesn’t believe in God; only in himself. And, like Friedman, he is adamantly opposed to granting the Palestinians sovereignty in the West Bank.

But he doesn’t seek to extend Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory either. He has no desire to rule directly over the Palestinians and would prefer to see them accepting limited autonomy over disjointed enclaves of Gaza and parts of the West Bank instead. He knows they are not about to accept that, so he is in no hurry to annex any territory beyond what Israel’s Labor government already annexed in and around Jerusalem in 1967.

For now, he is content to preserve Israel’s rule of Area C — the 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli civil and security control. Sovereignty can wait. If necessary, for another generation.

It’s a matter of priorities. While the settler movement has been clamoring for sovereignty for decades, Netanyahu has had other priorities — mainly countering Iran on multiple battlefields. The “creeping annexation,” the building of settlements and normalizing of the occupation, has been happening under every Israeli prime minister over the last 52 years. But Netanyahu would prefer not to provoke another intifada or jeopardize the ties he is building with the Saudis and other Arab regimes by annexing parts of the West Back anytime soon.

Back in April, when Netanyahu dangled annexation as an enticing carrot for right-wing voters, it was nothing more than an election promise. He was vague, contradictory and didn’t back it up with any form of policy planning. When he actually sat down for government coalition talks and the hard-right leaders made a list of demands for the first stage of annexations, he waved them away.

“We’ve talked to Trump’s people. We know that Netanyahu could do so much more,” said one frustrated right-winger. “He doesn’t want to, and he’s been making excuses that we have to wait for the Trump plan.”

Throughout his entire political career, Netanyahu’s overriding strategy has been to try to take the Palestinian issue off the international agenda. That meant both stymieing the Palestinians’ national aspirations but also reining in the settlers somewhat.

Over the years, international pressure on Israel has decreased as a result of fatigue from lack of progress; different politicians coming to power; and the gradual shift of the global center of gravity away from the West and toward Asian powers who are interested in commerce, not human rights. A rush for annexation, resulting in an outbreak of violence, could refocus international attention. Why risk it?

The easiest way for Netanyahu to counter the settlers’ demands while keeping them in his coalition was to complain about pressure from the Americans. That was his answer every time he was asked why Israel wasn’t building more settlements or evicting more Palestinians.

Friedman has taken away Netanyahu’s excuse.

It is certainly no coincidence that Netanyahu — usually so quick to praise the slightest gesture coming from the Trump administration — has yet to say a word publicly about the interview.

Friedman has done Netanyahu no favors. In less than 100 days — assuming the right wing/religious bloc wins another majority in 2019’s second election, which is almost a certainty — Netanyahu will be more vulnerable than ever.

The far right is furious at him for not appointing Bezalel Smotrich as justice minister, and for going behind their backs to Labor leader Avi Gabbay two weeks ago in an attempt to cement a last-minute coalition.

Netanyahu, with his pre-trial indictment hearings just around the corner, will have no more excuses when they demand annexation. By then, the Trump peace plan — if it ever existed in reality — will almost certainly be dead and buried after the farcical “economic workshop” in Bahrain and with Trump entering his own election season and quite possible impeachment.

Friedman has denied Netanyahu his main strategy for holding back the far right, and made his life much more difficult on the day after the September 17 election.