Analysis

What Does America's Ambassador Have Against Israeli Democracy?

Ambassador David Friedman has cast aspersions on Israeli society and the Israel Defense Forces by suggesting that the country could descend into civil war

An Israeli settler atop a building with an Israeli flag and a banner saying "I'm at military reserve duty" in the West Bank settlement of Elazar, which is slated for demolition. November 29, 2017.
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Barak Ravid, not long ago of this parish, reported on Monday night on Israel’s Channel 10 News that U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said at a closed session of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, at its annual gathering in Jerusalem, that “the settlers are going nowhere. The uprooting of hundreds of thousands of settlers could cause a civil war in Israel.”

However you look at it, that’s a pretty breathtaking statement for the ambassador of Israel’s closest ally to have made. Friedman was suggesting that the situation in Israel is so febrile and its society so fragile that, should a legitimately elected government carry out a large-scale eviction of settlers, as has been done twice before, it could bring about civil war.

For much less than that, the first Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, whose 26th yahrzeit was marked Monday, once lambasted a U.S. ambassador, asking “Are we a vassal state? Are we a banana republic? Are we 14-year-old boys that have to have our knuckles slapped if we misbehave?”

Don’t hold your breath for any similar response from the current Likud prime minister. But was Friedman willfully misleading or just stupidly ignorant in his assertion? Donald Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer was of course, not that long ago, a major donor and fundraiser for West Bank settlements. The warning that any possible eviction of settlements could lead to civil war has been used by some settlers in the past, although most responsible settler leaders say that if an Israeli government will so decree it, they will have no choice but to leave.

Could Friedman have been consciously echoing the less responsible of his settler friends? Quite possibly. However, the wording he used, according to the report that the U.S. Embassy has not refuted, gives grounds to believe he was speaking also out of willful ignorance. There is no serious proposal to remove hundreds of thousands of settlers and it never came up in any stage of the negotiations over the last 25 years. What was discussed and affirmed by successive administrations – from the “Clinton Parameters,” through the “Bush Letter” and “road map,” and accepted by the Obama administration as well – was a much smaller-scale eviction. Whether or not a two-state solution is viable, all its iterations have seen a limited territorial “swap” of settlement blocs, whereby the 3 or 4 percent of the area held by Jordan until 1967 will remain in Israeli hands.

The “hundreds of thousands” are Israelis living just across the Green Line in the eastern Jerusalem suburbs and small towns and villages built in the last 50 years. In various rounds of talks, the Palestinians have already agreed in principle to accepting land elsewhere in compensation for these areas. The “settlers” Friedman is referring to – the ones he has supported over the years and who under any of the scenarios would be evicted – live deeper within the Green Line and number only about 80,000.

It’s hard to believe that he is so ignorant as to be unaware of the parameters accepted by every American administration for the last quarter of a century, up until the Trump administration, that is. But then nothing is unbelievable when it comes to Trump’s crew.

What is even more disturbing is that Friedman, from his acquaintance with at least some of the settlers, would believe that they were capable of fomenting civil war. Whatever their political and religious views, the great majority of them are Israeli patriots who ultimately would accept the decision of the government. Sure, they would protest, and many would wait for the soldiers to come and drag them from their homes. But just like nearly all the settlers of Sinai in the early 1980s and those of the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria in 2005, at the end of the day they will leave peacefully.

Sure, there will quite likely be isolated pockets of violent resistance, but they will have been identified long in advance and when the time comes dealt with accordingly. A pullback from most of the West Bank will be traumatic for the settlers, but when the time comes and an Israeli government decides that it is in the nation’s interest, it will be carried out. A few tens of thousands, less than half a percent of Israel’s population, will not cause a civil war. They wouldn't want to in any case.

The settlers should be offended by Friedman even suggesting this. But his apparent ignorance of Israeli society, of the parameters of previous American peace plans and of the facts on the ground – all these pale besides his total lack of comprehension of the Israel Defense Forces, exhibited in another of his remarks Monday.

“The command of the IDF is increasingly being held by religious Zionists,” he said. “These are people who are committed to this land as a God-given land. I believe that significant eviction could lead to civil war.”

The IDF has never mutinied, never been close to it. The closest its generals have ever been to even insubordination was their weak attempt in 1967 to push Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to attack Egypt before he believed it was absolutely necessary, and their coordination of opposition to a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations early in this decade. And at the rank-and-file level there have been cases in which soldiers refused to take part in the eviction of settlements, but these have been a small handful of cases. Just as there have been similarly small numbers of soldiers from the left refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

In every eviction of a settlement, from the smallest outpost to the entire Gush Katif bloc, the number of religious soldiers and officers taking part outnumbered the number of religious settlers they were dragging out. Tens of thousands of soldiers and police took part in the 2005 Gaza disengagement, only about 60 refused orders, and out of those there were only two officers of a very junior level. And none of them actively sabotaged the evacuation.

True, the percentage of national-religious officers, particularly at the various command levels of combat units, is disproportional to their size in the overall Israeli population. But this has had a greater influence over them than it has had over the army. They may not like the orders they are given, but there is absolutely nothing to indicate that the religious officers of the IDF would not obey them.

If the IDF is ever called upon again to carry out a large-scale eviction of settlements, it will probably not involve the small numbers of all-religious units. Why ask for trouble? But the fact that there are thousands of religious officers in the regular units does not indicate that any widespread mutiny would take place, beyond a few isolated cases.

Friedman is disparaging Israeli society and its military by suggesting that a civil war could happen. There’s a narrative that has taken hold about him being “the most pro-Israel U.S. ambassador ever.” That’s true only if you believe that it’s in Israel interests to eternally occupy the Palestinians. But it isn’t and Friedman is not pro-Israel, any more than his boss Donald Trump embodies the best values of the United States of America. The ambassador is a throwback to the age when avuncular American uncles came here to hand out a few dollars and heimische pearls of wisdom to their poor Israeli brothers.

If the Netanyahu government had any real sense of pride in Israel’s achievements, as opposed to its empty jingoistic nationalism, it would have reprimanded Ambassador Friedman for casting aspersions on Israel’s democracy.