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David Friedman Indeed Violated a Glorious Tradition

Israel Harel
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David Friedman departs as Mike Pompeo (not pictured) boards a plane at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, November 20, 2020.
David Friedman departs as Mike Pompeo (not pictured) boards a plane at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, November 20, 2020.Credit: Patrick Semansky/Pool via REUTERS
Israel Harel

From the day David Friedman was nominated U.S. ambassador to Israel, he has been under an artillery barrage from the Israeli media.

This is how Victor Harel, a former senior Israeli diplomat, summed up Friedman’s term here: “[Y]ou were the most political and least professional U.S. ambassador ever to serve here. You violated a glorious tradition of American ambassadors” – that is, noninterference in Israeli domestic affairs. “Whereas you ... never ceased taking a stand regarding internal affairs, even those that are the subject of a bitter national dispute. ”

It’s true, Friedman did not continue the glorious tradition of his predecessors, especially the Jewish ones. The main difference is that in the context of their noninterference in our internal affairs, they recruited the media and other centers of power to persuade Israeli governments to adopt their positions, including personal ones, positions that were unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Israelis – and sometimes also to the very administration they represented. Friedman had no need for such manipulations. The president and his administration, like the government of Israel and the overwhelming majority of the population, supported most of his positions.

The late Samuel Lewis is a good example of this lofty tradition. He interfered in almost everything that moved here: in foreign and domestic policy and in senior appointments, including in the defense establishment. Cabinet members, lawmakers and senior members of the security and media establishments did not dare to go against his “advice.” Some people called him “the viceroy.”

Martin Indyk, like Friedman, was not a career diplomat. To maintain the tradition of noninterference, he used his connections with influential research institutions (some of them headed and staffed by research fellows at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy during his time there as founding executive director); with Israeli diplomats and journalists who had served in Washington and even with leaders of the settler movement he had met at AIPAC conferences.

During his tenure, the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Herzliya Pituah was a meeting place for leftist organizations. Indyk often issued declarations that clearly amounted to outrageous interference in Israel’s domestic affairs. But when criticism and interference come from the correct side, no senior diplomat steps up to denounce it with the kind of offensive language that Victor Harel used against Friedman.

The top spot in the league of the glorious tradition of noninterference, however, is reserved for Daniel Kurtzer, who was more of an ideologue than an ambassador. The moment he set foot on Israeli soil he began, in a very undiplomatic manner, to admonish the Israeli government. Those in the know say that his independent policy embarrassed even the U.S. administration. He attacked Likud and the right fiercely, ascribing to them intentions that not even their harshest Israeli critics would accuse them of having. At one point, many members of his synagogue (in Silver Spring, Maryland), tried to expel him from the congregation.

A piece of advice for Antony Blinken, the incoming secretary of state: When the time comes to write a farewell letter to Friedman, you should note that despite not being a career diplomat he, unlike his predecessors in the post, rarely interfered in Israel’s domestic affairs. This should be the guiding principle of his immediate successor, and for all those who will follow.

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