Chemi Shalev

Confirm Friedman: He Is the PERFECT Envoy to Israel in the Time of Trump

The assault on the ambassador-designate enables his critics to avoid the new reality.

David Friedman prepares to testify before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Israel, February 16, 2017.
Yuri Gripas, Reuters

I kinda felt sorry for David Friedman during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. In order to persuade the senators not to block his appointment as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, the fire-breathing advocate for Jewish settlements and right-wing supremacy morphed into a soft-spoken, Palestinian-loving pussycat. His testimony was humiliating for him and unpleasant for others but, far worse, it was superfluous and hypocritical.  It is Friedman’s old, and what I assume is still his true persona that deserves to be appointed, not the whitewashed, watered-down makeover that turned up at his hearing instead.

After all, his job in Tel Aviv – or Jerusalem, if he gets his way – will be to represent President Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Woodrow Wilson or Oprah Winfrey or Miss Manners. This is the same Donald Trump who describes critics and rivals as ”slobs,” “brain dead,” “disasters” and so much more. If U.S. envoys want to convey the true spirit of their administration to their appointed countries, there is no reason for them to soften their tone or camouflage their outlook. On the contrary: They should try to be as authentic as they can.

In addition to his English and Hebrew, Friedman is fluent in Trumpese as well as the radical dialects of the Israeli right wing. Accusing Obama of being anti-Semitic is not only in line with Trump’s birtherism, it is a label frequently used by many Israelis, up to and including cabinet ministers. Denying the existence of a Palestinian people or questioning the citizenship of Israeli Arabs is not only commensurate with Trump’s assaults on Muslims and immigrants, it is ho-hum run of the mill for senior Israeli leaders such as Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman. Describing J Street and others of its ilk as “kapos” is not only in the same league with Trump’s description of legal demonstrator as “thugs” and of the press as an enemy of the American people, it is also a widespread adjective routinely used by rabid right wingers in Israel to describe anyone who opposes their views, up to and including Benjamin Netanyahu himself.

Friedman has been “accused” of funding and supporting Jewish settlements in the West Bank, specifically Beit El. Pardon me? Are the settlements a rogue operation? Hasn’t this been official Israeli policy for decades? Haven’t successive U.S. administrations turned a blind eye to Israel’s settlement drive? And hasn’t Donald Trump stated already that, in his view, existing settlements aren’t an obstacle to peace? If they’re not an obstacle to peace, what’s wrong with Friedman having supported them in the past?

Never mind the preposterous sight of senators grilling Friedman for his previous lack of support for a two-state solution, 24 hours after Trump himself distanced the United States from that avenue and at a time when it is becoming crystal clear that Netanyahu himself only paid lip service to the principle of two states for two peoples and never had any intention of advancing its cause. Since when does the U.S. envoy to Israel have to be more dedicated to achieving peace with the Palestinians than either his host country or his government at home?  

Friedman is accused of lacking any experience in diplomacy, at a time when such experience could actually be a handicap. The five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel who urged the U.S. Senate to reject his appointment questioned Friedman’s “balance and temperament” when he is supposed to represent a president who has neither. The Reform movement blasted Friedman’s “extreme positions” when these are endorsed by a majority of Israel’s cabinet and coalition, by a substantial number of ascending American Jewish organizations and by many senators from the president’s own ruling party. Friedman is being pilloried for calling the Anti-Defamation League “morons” when Trump calls other American leaders as well as its people “stupid” every Monday and Thursday.

It is not Friedman, but the Foreign Relations Committee, presided over by Senator Bob Corker, that seemed detached from reality last week. The senators conducted themselves with civility and mutual respect, at a time when polarization and bitter partisan rancor define political discourse in both the United States and Israel. They pretended that Friedman strayed outside accepted norms and that political rivals should be treated with dignity and civility at a time when these two words have become almost archaic. They probed Friedman to find out if he supports a political solution that fewer and fewer people believe is either realistic or relevant. They conducted themselves as if the world outside is rational and reasonable when in fact it is rapidly being consumed by mayhem and bedlam. 

Friedman, in fact, is the perfect envoy to Israel. He represents the zeitgeist, irrational as it may be, in both Jerusalem and Washington. In order to do his job well, he should actually revert back to his old, vulgar, insulting, messianic and arguably racist ways. He is not the one at fault, his critics are. They cling to a past that no longer exists and they refuse to look at themselves in the mirror and admit that their time has come. Their assault on Friedman is simply another way of avoiding reality. Which is why Friedman’s appointment should be approved forthwith while his critics and opponents should consider themselves rejected.