Opinion

'Keep Your Mouths Shut': Ambassador David Friedman’s Crude pro-Israel Activism Devalues U.S. Diplomacy

When Trump’s ambassador tells the U.S. media it’s biased towards the Palestinians and to shut up, he’s not even pretending to be diplomatic any more. But he’s hardly damaging a thriving peace process either

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs U.S. Ambassador to Israel DavidFriedman during the dedication ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

American ambassadors to Israel have many important tasks to fulfill in terms of managing relations with the Jewish state, and playing a part in efforts to promote peace in the region.

But David Friedman has added one more to the list that his predecessors in the post did not seem to feel was part of their job: Media critic.

In an address at a conference in Jerusalem on Monday, Friedman tore into what he considered unfair foreign press coverage of Israel. Taking aim at accounts of the violence along the border with Gaza in American outlets and one unnamed Israeli newspaper (a likely reference to Haaretz), Friedman said those journalists who criticized Israel for the death of Palestinians who hadn’t researched alternatives to the use of live fire under those circumstances should, “keep your mouths shut until you figure it out.”

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Friedman was not wrong to claim that a lot of the foreign press coverage was slanted in favor of the Palestinian narrative that claimed the march of return was a peaceful affair and accepted at face value their claims that the Israel Defense Forces used disproportionate force.

But whatever one thinks about the press or what happened at the border, the idea that taking the media to task for its rough handling of the Jewish state is the job of the U.S. ambassador to Israel is something that never would have occurred to anyone before President Donald Trump tapped Friedman, his former bankruptcy attorney and a veteran pro-Israel activist, for the position.

In part, Friedman is doing nothing more than mimicking his boss. The Trump administration, including the tweeter-in-chief at the top, is more or less in a continuous state of war with most of the American media. While Steve Bannon, the former senior advisor and Breitbart CEO, has been banished from the Trump inner circle, his line about the press being the true “opposition party,” represents the feelings of everyone who still works there.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman shakes hands with Prime Minister Netanyahu during a signing ceremony in Jerusalem on December 4, 2017.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

And as much as the Trump team’s animus for the press is deep-seated, it seems to be reciprocated by most of their antagonists in the mainstream media, especially as the conflict has grown increasingly bitter over the last year.

But more than that, Friedman’s approach to the press must be understood as second nature for anyone who spent most of his adult life as a pro-Israel activist rather than a think tank scholar, diplomat or government staffer, which would have described the careers of the three previous Jews to hold this post (Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer and Daniel Shapiro). That’s especially true for those who sympathize with the Israeli right as Friedman did.

For many pro-Israel Jews in the United States, the battle with the local media over coverage of Israel - which for a New Yorker like Friedman centers largely on a longstanding feud between much of the Jewish community and The New York Times - isn’t just a matter of correcting bias. It’s their way to take part in the fight to defend Israel and sometimes seems to mean almost as much to them as the IDF and the security services’ struggles against terrorists.

To note that is not to diminish the importance of keeping the press honest on a topic on which much of the international media is often deeply unfair to Israel. But it is a very different mindset than what we’re used to for a person in a sensitive diplomatic position that will necessarily involve more than just rallying support for the Jewish state.

Road signs directing to the U.S. embassy are seen on a truck in Jerusalem on May 7, 2018.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

Friedman’s nomination engendered controversy largely because of his record as a supporter of the settlement movement and his incendiary attacks on antagonists like the left-wing J Street lobby.

But the issue with Friedman now that he is in office is not so much his ideology and affection for Netanyahu’s coalition (which should be no more disqualifying than the clear sympathy of Indyk, Kurtzer and Shapiro for the prime minister’s left-wing opponents) but the fact that he sometimes seems to speak as if he is still a Jewish activist rather than a U.S. government official.

But as odd as the spectacle of an ambassador who seems to still think like an activist might be, the question to ask about Friedman is whether having an ambassador that the Palestinians view as nothing more than an envoy from AIPAC (or groups to the right of AIPAC) is undermining the peace process or harming the interests of the United States.

Friedman’s stance is actually very much in line with the entire tenor of the Trump administration’s go-it-alone approach to foreign policy. UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who has been earning cheers for her eloquent defense of Israel at the UN Security Council and Trump’s stand on the Iran deal make it clear that this president is entirely comfortable with the idea of America standing alone on the international stage.

U.S. Ambassador David Friedman standing next to the controversial photo, May 22, 2018.
Israel Cohen / Kikar Hashabat

While Trump’s critics blame him for the lack of hope for a two state solution, the truth is that the peace process was dead in the water long before he arrived at the White House. Eight years of President Obama’s efforts to create more "daylight" between the U.S. and Israel didn’t entice the Palestinian Authority to even meet Washington half way. If anything, Trump’s efforts to hold the PA accountable for its pensions for terrorists and promotion of hate were a necessary correction to his predecessor’s unwillingness to meaningfully address these issues.

Moreover, even Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital still left the door open to a two-state solution if Abbas, ailing and mired in a competition with Hamas, was really still interested in that option.

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Had Abbas not signaled the Saudis and anyone else willing to listen that he would not even consider the peace proposal Trump is preparing to offer the Palestinians, the argument that Friedman’s attitude was inappropriate might carry more weight.

Indeed, despite the time and effort that Trump’s negotiator Jason Greenblatt and son-in-law/advisor Jared Kushner have lavished on the proposal, it’s hard to understand why Trump will even bother to present a plan that no one on either side believes will even be discussed, let alone have a chance of succeeding.

Palestinian protesters hold an Israeli flag with a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump during clashes with Israeli troops along Gaza's border with Israel. April 13, 2018
Adel Hana/AP

But with Hamas staging demonstrations promoting a right of return that is synonymous with endless conflict and Fatah straining to prove that it is not soft on Trump, it’s hard to see how Friedman’s stance has any impact on events.

While he might be considered a liability if negotiations were remotely realistic, in their absence he is merely playing the role of sympathetic friend and cheerleader for good relations between two countries, a role that American ambassadors generally play in countries that are not the focus of intractable conflicts.

If Palestinians really want a change in personnel at the new Jerusalem embassy, they’re going to have stop acting as if they are still stuck in their own ideological morass that seems rooted more in the need to continue a century-old conflict against Zionism than a struggle to create an independent state. Until that changes, they should get used to having a pro-Israel activist like Friedman as America’s ambassador.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin