Analysis |

With Friedman as Trump's Israel Envoy, Netanyahu No Longer Has the American Excuse for Settlers

If after Trump’s victory there were enthusiastic cries of joy among the settlers, after the appointment of Friedman they're experiencing genuine messianic euphoria.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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The Amona outpost in early Dec. 2016.
The Amona outpost in early December 2016.Credit: Ilan Assayag
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

At the beginning of last week, when an interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was aired on the CBS program “60 Minutes,” quite a few people on the Israeli right and in the settlers’ lobby raised an eyebrow at one of the premier’s statements: “Two states for two peoples. And that’s where I’m focused. Yeah, I’d like to have President Trump, when he gets into the White House, help me work on that. I’d like to see if the Arab states can help me achieve that. It’s a new reality. A new possibility.”

After the announcement Thursday night of David Friedman’s appointment as the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, it’s far from clear whether Netanyahu and the Trump administration are on the same wavelength. The U.S. president-elect has simply bypassed the Israeli prime minister on the right. Compared to the new U.S. ambassador – the head of the American Friends of Bet El in the United States – Netanyahu sounds and looks like a member of Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem or, God forbid, J Street.

During the election campaign and afterward, Friedman voiced opinions that would place him on the deep right in Israel. Far closer to Habayit Hayehudi than Likud. He expressed opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state; unreservedly supported the settlements and their legality; cast doubt on the demographic figures regarding the number of Palestinians living in the West Bank; and even claimed Trump would support the annexation of large parts of the territories to Israel.

There was a reason why the first to welcome the appointment was Education Minister and Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett. For him, this appointment is a real political and diplomatic bonanza. A few minutes later it was Yossi Dagan, the head of Samaria Regional Council, who joined the congratulations.

If after Trump’s victory there were enthusiastic cries of joy among the settlers and their supporters, after the appointment of Friedman some of them are experiencing genuine messianic euphoria. Bennett, Dagan and the other members of the settler lobby see Trump’s victory as a historical opportunity to remove the two-state solution from the agenda. They may well be right.

Back to Netanyahu. Friedman’s appointment puts Bibi in the place he most hates to be politically: Without flak jackets like MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) or former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, or threatening demons like outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry.

Once again, it has become clear that at the start of the Trump era, the prime minister has run out of excuses. What will he tell the settlers? That if he builds in the settlements or annexes the territories, Ambassador Friedman will lodge a protest? As the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once said, Netanyahu will have to decide who to listen to – his right hand or his left hand.

Friedman’s greatest advantage is his close relationship with the president-elect. He was Trump’s personal attorney for some 15 years and represented him in a large number of lawsuits – chief among them the bankruptcy of Trump’s casinos in Atlantic City. Friedman is to Trump what attorneys David Shimron or Isaac Molho are to Netanyahu. Anyone who talks to the new ambassador will know he’s talking to the president.

David Friedman, President-elect Donald Trump's pick as U.S. ambassador to Israel.Credit: Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP via AP

On the other hand, one of Friedman’s main shortcomings is that his views are shared only by a small minority of American Jews, and a not much larger minority of Israeli Jews. The majority of Israelis and most American Jews are interested in the two-state solution, don’t support unlimited construction in the settlements and don’t want to annex the territories with their 2.5 million Palestinians.

Although he’s a fluent Hebrew speaker, Friedman will be tested in his ability to conduct a meaningful dialogue with the majority of Israeli society that doesn’t think like him. Outgoing Ambassador Dan Shapiro performed that task successfully. In his six years here, he traveled throughout the country and opened channels of communication with communities the U.S. administration had barely spoken to before. Among those who can testify to that are the heads of the Land of Israel caucus in the Knesset – MKs Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) and Yoav Kish (Likud) – the heads of the Yesha Council of settlements, leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community, and many more.

A few weeks ago, Friedman said he considers the members of J Street “far worse than kapos” in the Holocaust, and therefore he boycotts them. It will be interesting to hear his opinion on the views of lawmakers from the Joint List, Meretz, the Zionist Union and even parts of Yesh Atid. Will he boycott them, too? How will he conduct himself with the Arab citizens of Israel, who constitute some 20 percent of Israel’s population?

In recent weeks, Trump has said several times that he’s interested in trying to achieve a historic peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He stressed his desire to end “the endless war” between the two peoples and to be able to close “the mother of all deals” – and his intention to appoint son-in-law Jared Kushner as an envoy on his behalf for that purpose.

It’s not clear how that meshes with the appointment of an ambassador who is opposed to the two-state solution, or with the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem – which will apparently begin in 2017. The impression given is that, on this subject as well, the familiarity of Trump and his advisers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all its complexity, and with the situation on the ground, is partial at best.

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