America has a problem in Tel Aviv.
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has politicized his diplomatic office and misrepresented U.S. policy on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. In the process, he is causing real damage to our country’s interests in the region.
Ambassador Friedman has been, to say the least, a controversial figure since before he emerged as President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to serve as US ambassador to Israel. By now, he has provided ample reasons to conclude that he should be fired.
The latest indication of Friedman’s unsuitability to serve as America’s chief representative to Israel came in his speech at the Zionist Organization of America’s annual dinner, where he was honored for his "outstanding diplomacy." At the fte-cum-political rally, alt-right icons Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka were treated as esteemed guests.
Friedman’s ZOA appearance demonstrated a lack of respect for diplomatic norms, according to which ambassadors stay above politics. Our ambassador used the gala as a platform for partisan attacks. The target of his opprobrium was former President Barack Obama, whom he accused of committing "perhaps the greatest betrayal of Israel by a sitting president in American history."
Obama’s supposed crime was his courageous decision not to exercise the US veto against UN Security Council Resolution 2334. The resolution reaffirmed the long-held U.S. position regarding the status of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied territory, and urged countries to maintain a distinction between Israel within the pre-1967 lines and West Bank settlements.
Whether or not you agree with the merits of Obama’s act, there can be no question that Friedman’s characterization of Obama as having "betrayed" Israel is a patently false smear. On the watch of every other American president since 1967, the US abstained on or even voted for multiple Security Council resolutions critical of Israel. In eight years, Obama did it only once.
Friedman has a history of accusing then-President Obama of engaging in "blatant anti-Semitism" and calling liberal American Jews like those who support J Street "far worse than kapos" (Nazi collaborators). He walked back many of his prior comments and positions in the course of his confirmation hearing, so much so that Senators questioned the authenticity of what one legislator dubbed a "nomination conversion."
More troubling than his partisan attacks is the question of whom Friedman thinks he represents.
The fact is: Friedman acts as though he represents Israel’s settlement movement and its right-wing American supporters rather than the U.S. government or public. He told Israel’s Walla! News in September, "I think the settlements are a part of Israel” and absurdly suggested that Israel is "only occupying two percent of the West Bank."
These assertions fly in the face of long-held U.S. policy, which has never recognized any part of the West Bank as belonging to Israel. Israel’s own Supreme Court regards this territory as legally held under "belligerent occupation."
The State Department found itself in the position of having to disavow Friedman’s remarks for a second time in three weeks, with spokeswoman Heather Nauert stipulating that his words did "not indicate a shift in U.S. policy." (The earlier disavowal came in response to a Jerusalem Post interview in which Friedman referred to Israel’s "alleged occupation" of the West Bank.)
Friedman opposes the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (he has called it "an illusory solution in search of a non-existent problem"), a long-held tenet of America’s Mideast policy.
This attitude should come as no surprise since Friedman served for years as president of American Friends of Beit El, a settlement near Ramallah, and raised millions of dollars for the settlement’s yeshiva, known for its extremist rabbi.
In their letter urging senators not to confirm Friedman, five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel stated their concern that Friedman would not advance "longstanding bipartisan goals in the region," including promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Their concerns were well-founded. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is combustible enough as is. America cannot afford to have a flamethrower in the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.
David Friedman should never have been confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Israel. Now that he has shown that his conversion on the road to confirmation was indeed fake, he must go.
Debra Shushan is Director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now. She was previously a Middle East politics professor at the College of William and Mary. Twitter: @ShushanAPN
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