Opinion |

Religious Fanatics Have Hijacked America's Israel Policy. And They're Not Even Evangelicals

Trump's extremist, maverick pro-settler envoys, David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, aren't resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They're fueling it - and Congress should investigate

Ori Nir
Ori Nir
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U.S.  Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, March 26, 2019.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, March 26, 2019.Credit: Jose Luis Magana / AP
Ori Nir
Ori Nir

With ten-pound hammers in their hands and ecstatic religious-nationalist zeal in their hearts, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and White House Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt stood underneath the most religiously volatile place on earth, and smashed a wall – and with it, any last semblance of reasonable U.S. policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The two senior U.S. diplomats were among the guests of honor, together with Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, at the inauguration of an archaeological tunnel in East Jerusalem that unearths a path claimed to lead from a ritual cleansing pool to the Second Jewish Temple.

There could not be a more apt metaphor for the Trump administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s team, led by ideologically pro-settler right-wing extremists, has no interest in conflict resolution. Rather, you could call their approach "conflict contribution." They are intentionally contributing to the conflict by adding fuel to its fire.

Contrary to common belief, what drives Trump’s aides is not innocent ineptness. Clumsy and ill-informed as their policy may seem, it is deliberate.

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It’s goal oriented, focused on forcing Palestinians to surrender their national aspirations, give up on the dream of independence and statehood, and succumb to permanent Israeli settlements and occupation.

Follow the outrageous statements of Friedman, Greenblatt, and Trump’s policy assistant and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who nominally leads this team (though Friedman is the architect of the policy). Scrutinize their words and actions, and you cannot reach a different conclusion.

The three, with the ignorant blessing of Donald Trump, have in the past couple of years swung a sledgehammer at two decades of U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That policy, embraced by both Republican and Democratic administrations, endorsed the two-state solution and rejected measures that would undermine or prejudice it, such as West Bank settlement construction.

Incredibly, State Department spokespeople still tell journalists that U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not changed. In practice, Friedman and Greenblatt are revolutionizing it.

They contend that settlements are not an obstacle to peace, that the two-state solution is not America’s official policy, and that there is "no such thing" as an honest broker, a role that the U.S. traditionally aspired to play as primary peacemaker in the region.

They even endorsed a possible Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank ("some, but unlikely all," in the words of Ambassador Friedman). Greenblatt, in a recent CNN interview, was asked whether there have been any Israeli actions that have held up the peace process or have been unhelpful. "No," he flatly replied.

But it gets worse. Friedman has repeatedly broken the wall between his religious convictions and his diplomatic mission. "Israel’s secret weapon," he recently told an evangelical gathering, lies in being "on the side of God."

Last year, he was photographed at the headquarters of Achiya, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli nonprofit that the U.S. Embassy now supports, with an aerial depiction of Jerusalem featuring the Jewish Temple replacing the Muslim Dome of the Rock. Later he claimed that the lads at Achiya set him up.

At last week’s tunnel opening ceremony, Friedman contended that because the U.S. Declaration of Independence mentions God, "This place is as much a heritage of the United States as it is a heritage of Israel."

Let’s face it, folks: America’s Israel-Palestine policy has been hijacked by extremist nationalist-religious ideologues. These mavericks are colluding with the annexationist agenda of Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government, shattering what’s left of America’s credibility in the region, and wrecking prospects for future Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution peace negotiations.

Their policy jeopardizes Israel’s future as a democracy and a Jewish state. It undermines both U.S. and Israeli national security interests.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and White House Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt attend the opening of an ancient road at the City of David, in Silwan, East Jerusalem. 30 June 2019Credit: Tsafrir Abayov,AP

Responsible Americans, including members of Congress, who care about Israel and peace in the region, have a role to play in stopping this destructive trio’s irresponsible agenda, which emboldens Israeli zealots and provokes Palestinians.

Congress should hold hearings. The Senate, which narrowly approved Friedman’s appointment as ambassador to Israel, with great reservations, should investigate whether, in office, the ambassador is advancing a fanatical ideology or doing his job in serving U.S. policy and national security interests.

Both the House and the Senate are considering resolutions that reaffirm Congress’ endorsement of the two-state solution and repudiate Israeli West Bank annexation. Such nonbinding resolutions are welcome.

But if Congress is serious about Israeli-Palestinian peace, it must address the sledgehammers on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and stop them from shattering hopes for Middle East peace.

Ori Nir, a former Washington correspondent of Haaretz and The Forward, works for Americans for Peace Now, the sister-organization of Israel’s Peace Now movement. Twitter: @OriNir_APN

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