Donald Trump’s transition team announced Thursday that the president-elect intends to appoint his close associate David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel. Friedman, a lawyer specializing in bankruptcy cases, was one of Trump’s key campaign advisers.
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More than anything, Friedman is an extreme right-winger and an avid supporter of the settlements and annexation to Israel of West Bank territories. He called members of the moderate organization J Street, whose positions many Israelis support, “worse than kapos,” an expression that could incite violence against them. His worldview is simplistic and befits a propagandist and a preacher, not a diplomat.
All ambassadors are emissaries of the president. That’s why serving ambassadors submit their resignation when a new president is elected.
In fact many of them – one-third to two-thirds – are permanent members of the Foreign Service. Presidents and secretaries of state are careful to maintain a reasonable mix of professionals and political appointees; among the latter are contributors to the election campaign, party loyalists and others to be rewarded.
Although the ambassador’s importance has been reduced in an age of frequent meetings and direct communication among senior officials, it’s still best in key countries for ambassadors to be knowledgeable and experienced so they can best leverage their position for the people who sent them.
Friedman, according to his qualifications and statements, is not made of the stuff that produced outstanding ambassadors to Israel (Walworth Barbour, 1961-73; Samuel Lewis, 1977-85), nor does his background resemble that of the three Jewish U.S. ambassadors since the 1990s – Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer and Daniel Shapiro. He is one-dimensional and one-sided.
If the settlers had a state of their own in the West Bank, he might be suitable to serve as ambassador there, and maybe not even that, because his basic identification must be with overall American interests. He must also understand the security and diplomatic interests of Israel in general, not just the settler tail that wags the dog.
Outgoing President Barack Obama advised Trump on Friday to derive his policies worldwide from a comprehensive worldview, including pitfalls, priorities and reciprocal relations. Friedman’s appointment shows that Trump does not accept this approach. He openly ignores aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, give jobs to those loyal to him and courts the minority of American Jewish extremists.
If Friedman’s appointment fails to pass in the Senate after close scrutiny of his background and a thorough hearing, that will be a blessing for Israel.