'You Have to Be Strong to Get Respect': What the U.S. Ambassador to Israel Really Thinks of the Middle East

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and David Friedman in front of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, May 21, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and David Friedman in front of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, May 21, 2017.Credit: Abir Sultan/AP

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman revealed Tuesday his view on the Middle East, and in particular, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during a private conversation with members of the American Jewish Congress. 

"The Middle East is not the U.S. There’s a different way of thinking… It’s really different here, it’s a very different world, and you have to be strong here, there is no other way to gain respect in this part of the world… you can’t talk your way, you just have to be strong… Maybe it would be better if the world weren’t like that but that’s how it is," Friedman said.

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Friedman's remarks bore a striking similarity to what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday during a ceremony renaming the nuclear reactor in Dimona to the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center. “Shimon aspired toward peace but he knew that true peace can be achieved only if our hands strongly grasp defensive weaponry," Netanyahu said at the beginning of the ceremony. He then turned to addressing the unrest across the Middle East region.

"In the Middle East, and in many parts of the world, there's a simple truth: There's no place for the weak. The weak collapse, get butchered, are erased from history. And the strong, for better or worse, are the ones who survive," he said.

Netanyahu speaking outside the nuclear plant in Dimona, August 29, 2018.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

"The strong," he said, "are the ones who are respected, the strong are the ones with whom alliances are struck, and eventually the strong are the ones with whom you make peace." Netanyahu added this strength was behind the “normalization” of Israel’s relations with “leading countries in the Arab world.”

In Tuesday's telephone briefing with American Jewish Congress members, Friedman said "there is no capacity to have peace with the Palestinians unless there's peace with all the Palestinians, including the million and a half in Gaza."

Friedman went on to clarify that this "means there should be ideally one government [for the Palestinians]… If you go around the PA and somehow try to restructure Gaza without them, you're giving a tremendous prize to Hamas… with all the failings of the PA if the choice is Hamas we pick the PA."

The U.S. ambassador reiterated, as he has publicly on several occasions in the past, that Trump's administration won't make Israel suffer negative consequences over the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Friedman also clarified that the only price U.S. President Donald Trump is asking the two sides to pay is to demonstrate willingness to advance in peace talks.

Friedman also confirmed a recent statement by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton that the administration did not have an exact deadline for the unveiling of its peace plan, and that it will not be presented at the upcoming UN General Assembly session.

Speaking about internal Israeli affairs, Friedman addressed the controversy that was sparked over Israel's passage of the contentious nation-state law. He was heard giving explanations on behalf of Israel to the American Jewish Congress regarding the decision to pass the legislation.

"Israel is a democracy and it has a right to pass laws and govern its people," Friedman said and objected to the idea that the U.S. would interfere with the Israeli government's decision-making.

"There's a basic law of human dignity and nothing in the nation-state law overwrites that," he added.

Friedman allowed that "many in the Israeli leadership regretted that it had that effect on the Druze who serve in the military and on a personal level are amazing people" and that "there are things that could have been done better."

Nonetheless, the ambassador stated that he had no doubt that "at some point down the road the court will have to consider the interplay between the nation-state law and the basic law of human dignity… I'm pretty confident that the basic law of human dignity is going to win out."

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