Analysis

With His Hammer, Friedman Smashed U.S. Status as Fair Mediator in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The tunnel the U.S. envoy inaugurated in East Jerusalem doesn't threaten the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and it's unlikely to lead to violent clashes ■ Ceremony was a symbol of the strengthening Trump-Netanyahu alliance, and the pushing aside of everyone else

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam at the ceremony inaugurating the 'Path of the Pilgrims' in Silwan, June 30, 2019.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

Almost a footnote to these regional tensions, on Sunday evening, a ceremony was held to inaugurate the “Path of the Pilgrims” excavation of a tunnel running under the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. The event had an unusual guest list, which, in its own way, suits the spirit of the times. Among the guests of honor were the prime minister's wife Sara Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, the Trump administration's Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, and the Jewish-American billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, who own the Israel Hayom newspaper.

Friedman was even filmed, hammer in hand, taking the first knocks at a symbolic wall that had been erected for the tunnel's inauguration. At the ceremony, the ambassador called the dig an American and Israeli heritage site. Why an American one? Because the site commemorates history from the biblical era, on which American history also relies: "This place is as much a heritage of the United States as it is a heritage of Israel," he said.

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That is rather far-reaching interpretation of the relationship between Israel and the United States, which will definitely strengthen the messianic fervor on the Israeli right.

Israel's security forces aren't ruling out a possible stabbing or car-ramming attack in Jerusalem in the aftermath of the ceremony. The situation in East Jerusalem was fragile to begin with, after police killed a young man who shot firecrackers toward then in the neighborhood of Isawiyah last week.

Although this provided an opportunity for historic comparisons, it's doubtful that the inauguration of the tunnel will cause rioting at the scale of September 1996, when the Western Wall tunnel was opened, or following Ariel Sharon's visit to Temple Mount four years later, which portended the start of the second intifada. This time the digging is outside the Old City walls, and it isn't considered a direct threat to the Al-Aqsa mosque or an offense against Islam.

The importance of the image of Friedman breaking down the wall is mainly symbolic. It bolsters the Trump-Netanyahu bond, sponsored by their joint patron, Sir Adelson, and alienates even further anybody not partner to that alliance, from Netanyahu's political rivals in Israel to the Democratic Party in the U.S. It also exacerbates Palestinian suspicions, which were high to begin with, about the alliance between the Washington administration and the government in Jerusalem.

When the people in charge of the American negotiating team are engaged in erasing and denying the words "occupation" and "settlements," the Palestinians are not hurrying to cave to the economic temptations the Americans dangled in their faces at the Bahrain conference. And when Friedman and Greenblatt are hammering holes in a wall below the surface of Jerusalem, it's hard to view them as unbiased brokers.