Trump’s controversial ambassadorial pick

Trump's controversial ambassadorial pick

Update from AIJAC

Dec. 21, 2016

Update 12/16 #05

Today’s Update looks at US President-elect Donald Trump’s announcement that David Friedman is his pick for the next US Ambassador to Israel. Friedman has worked for Trump as a legal adviser for many years and holds a range of positions on Israel that are markedly different to the outgoing Obama Administration, including questioning the merits of the two-state formula for peace. A good profile of Friedman from the New York Times’ Isabel Kershner and Sheryl Gay Stolberg can be found here.

The announcement has generated considerable opposition in the media from left-leaning political groups, such as J Street, with the New York Times dedicating an editorial to the nomination (Noah Pollak looks at the alleged bias of some of the negative coverage).
The nomination comes on the heels of Trump’s pre-election promise to relocate the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby officially recognising the city as Israel’s capital.  Friedman’s appointment and discussion of the Embassy move have rattled the Palestinian Authority. Its chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, is promising to resign from his position, predicts the PLO will revoke its recognition of Israel and threatens the closure of US embassies across the Middle East.
Meanwhile, according to this analysis (behind Wall Street Journal paywall) from former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Vivian Bercovici, the opposition to Friedman from the diplomatic corps is based on an elitist belief that only professional diplomats can do the job. 

First up, Jonathan Tobin says Friedman will make an excellent ambassador because he understands Trump’s views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and will have the President’s ear. Tobin dismisses Friedman’s opponents on the “Jewish left”, saying they are wedded to the notion that “those who are sympathetic to Netanyahu’s government or even the settlement movement—as Friedman is—are somehow opponents of peace”. Moreover, he says, Friedman’s critics fail to comprehend that his “views reflect an understanding of the reality of the conflict and the views of those [Israelis] who voted for Israel’s [current] government that his critics lack. Israel will, as Netanyahu has repeatedly said, embrace a two-state solution, but only in exchange for real peace rather than a truce that would only extend the conflict on terms that will make Israel less secure”. Tobin’s analysis on the implications of the embassy move can be read here. To read Tobin’s important analysis on the Friedman nomination, CLICK HERE

Next up, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Elliott Abrams says the opposition from the left is unwarranted because Friedman is a “smart cookie” and one of America’s top bankruptcy lawyers but if he “were a lawyer handling traffic violations but belonged to J Street, [the left] would all be applauding”. Abrams stresses that Friedman’s intimate knowledge of Israel and commitment to its security is an advantage over professional diplomats who “would not come to the position with the knowledge and commitment or the sheer intellectual power that Friedman brings, nor would they have the total confidence of the President of the United States.” To read this piece, CLICK HERE

Finally, John Podhoretz looks at how the nomination will play out in the US Congress and sees Friedman’s nomination as an important indicator that Trump recognises new thinking is needed to break the impasse in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To read this article, CLICK HERE

Readers may also be interested in…

One Ambassador and Two States

Jonathan S. Tobin

Commentary, December 20, 2016
Haaretz reports that JStreet and other left-wing Jewish organizations believe they can turn Donald Trump’s nomination of attorney David Friedman to be U.S. ambassador to Israel into a test of their strength on Capitol Hill. But the result of that test may not be what they are hoping for. The notion that a president’s choice for an ambassadorial post can be thwarted because of statements that place him at odds with the views of previous administrations rather than that of the one he will serve is an odd one
The conflict about his publicly-stated opposition to a two-state solution isn’t so much about Friedman as it about the delusions about the peace process that his leftist critics and their media megaphones still labor under. Nor is it one that is likely to arouse much opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate that will be inclined, as is the tradition, to respect a president’s right to choose the people he trusts for key positions.
A large percentage of each president’s ambassadorial choices are assumed to be contributors, political allies or cronies in every administration. That was as true of Barack Obama as it will be of Trump or any other president. The only grounds on which such appointments are generally blocked relate to the integrity of the nominee, which in this case is not in question, and not whether a non-politician like Friedman has always refrained from voicing controversial views. Moreover, Friedman’s status as a friend of the president-elect as well as someone who has been a key advisor on Middle East issues makes him an ideal choice for this posting. Having America’s representative in Israel be someone with a good idea of how Trump thinks and with the president’s ear makes more sense than having some veteran State Department hand who is hostile to the new president in such a crucial job.
But the real issue here is policy.
The two-state solution remains the ideal way to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But all too many of those who ritualistically endorse the concept and are appalled at the notion of a skeptic being the ambassador to Israel are unwilling to think seriously about why that scheme hasn’t been put into effect yet. Unlike President Obama and other critics of the Netanyahu government, Friedman rightly understands that the Palestinian refusal to accept peace offers involving statehood is not a minor detail to be ignored or rationalized as his critics have done. It is the real obstacle to peace.
It is an article of faith on the Jewish left that those who are sympathetic to Netanyahu’s government or even the settlement movement—as Friedman is—are somehow opponents of peace. But Friedman’s views reflect an understanding of the reality of the conflict and the views of those who voted for Israel’s government that his critics lack. Israel will, as Netanyahu has repeatedly said, embrace a two-state solution, but only in exchange for real peace rather than a truce that would only extend the conflict on terms that will make Israel less secure.
If Friedman’s appointment signals that Trump intends to cease second-guessing Israel’s sensible refusal to make suicidal concessions and that they will discard the idea that it is America’s duty to save Israel from itself, all friends of Israel should welcome it. The same applies to Friedman’s support for the idea of ending the illogical and damaging American policy of refusing to accept that even West Jerusalem is Israeli territory and the location of its capital. Rather than a sign of extremism, Trump’s tapping of his friend for this post may actually be an indication of a new realism in Washington.


The Next Ambassador to Israel

Elliott Abrams    
Council on Foreign Relations “Pressure Points” blog,
December 18, 2016

President-Elect Trump’s choice of David M. Friedman as his ambassador to Israel has occasioned both appropriate news coverage, and a barrage of nasty, ignorant, politically biased comments.

Most of those comments (including the poison-pen editorial in The New York Times) have informed readers that Mr. Friedman is unfit for this post because he is a “bankruptcy lawyer” lacking diplomatic experience. I was previously unaware that being a “bankruptcy lawyer” was equivalent to a crime of moral turpitude, but that is in any event an odd description of Mr. Friedman. In fact he is one of the top lawyers in that field in the United States, year after year being so listed in articles about the very best American lawyers. The New York Times tells us that he has since 1994 been a partner at a firm called Kasowitz, Benson, Torres, & Friedman, but does not bother to tell readers that he is in fact the Friedman of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres, & Friedman–a firm whose name was changed when he joined it, and which he has helped build to about 350 lawyers in seven cities. He is also a self-made man, the son of an Orthodox rabbi who came to the practice of law without the benefit of wealth or fancy connections.

To the Times all that is irrelevant; presumably they would prefer a fellow at a white-shoe Wall Street firm whose father or grandfather had been a diplomat, who belonged to the right clubs, and who rather than soil himself with the actual practice of law opens doors and makes connections. But I doubt most Americans take that view, and Mr. Trump did not. I’ve met Mr. Friedman once; we connected because I have a son who works in the Kasowitz firm. What do you learn from one meeting? Only that you’re dealing with one smart cookie, and that his involvement with Israeli affairs for decades has given him a far better insight than the average diplomat.

Of course that Mr. Friedman is a “bankruptcy lawyer” is not his only, nor his primary, disqualification in the eyes of the Left. You may be sure that if he were a lawyer handling traffic violations but belonged to J Street, they would all be applauding. Their real problem is that Mr. Friedman’s views are anathema to them. He thinks J Street is actually an anti-Israel rather than a pro-peace organization, that settlements are not an obstacle to peace, and other terrible things. He even thinks the U.S. embassy should be moved to Jerusalem. That these views are apparently shared by the President-Elect and will be American policy is of course what really troubles the Times and others, and they label all these “extremist views” and call Mr. Friedman “dangerous.”

It is also objected that Mr. Friedman’s views are not those of all Israelis, because he is a man of the Right. Of course, the Times and the Left never object when the United States sends an envoy who is on the Left; that’s considered being a good diplomat. In the George W. Bush years, Prime Minister Sharon complained repeatedly about the leftist leanings of the American envoy, and in other decades it was pretty obvious that Washington and the U.S. ambassador favored the Labor Party and were even working to drive out a Likud prime minister. I cannot recall complaints in The New York Times.

I do not share all of Mr. Friedman’s views, but I am delighted that the United States will soon have an envoy who can do what the Israeli ambassador in Washington can do: call home and speak to the top guy. I’m very pleased that we’ll have an ambassador who has known the country to which he is accredited for decades and won’t need briefing books to learn its geography. I think it’s great that we’ll have someone deeply committed to Israel’s security (consider this story, told by a friend of his: “he decided to buy a home in Jerusalem on the day in 2002 that a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at Café Moment, a popular bar in the city, killing 11 Israelis.”) and to its well-being (he organized a fund that built a village in the Negev for disabled Jewish and Bedouin kids).

Traditional diplomat? Not at all. On the right? For sure. And, brilliant lawyer and deeply committed Zionist. He will have to forge new relationships with Israeli Arabs and Israeli leftists, figure out how to interact with the State Department and other parts of the United States Government, and learn more about Israel’s relations with Russia, and with Egypt and Jordan. So would any new envoy. But they would not come to the position with the knowledge and commitment or the sheer intellectual power that Friedman brings, nor would they have the total confidence of the President of the United States. The coming years could bring more tumult in Arab lands, attacks on Israel by ISIS or Hezbollah, a succession crisis in Ramallah, or even a new Israeli prime minister. Israel and the United States are very much better off when the American ambassador can do far more than deliver messages from Washington, and can instead bring to the U.S. Government and right to the Oval Office his considered analyses of the worst problems– and the  best solutions.


The Foolish Coming War on David Friedman

John Podhoretz

Commentary, December 16, 2016
 “Personnel is policy.” That’s one of the great cliches of Washington staffing, and we have an example of its truth in Donald Trump’s nomination of the New York bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman to be his ambassador to Israel.
Much will be made of the blunt Friedman’s very harsh words about left-wing Jewish groups and about President Obama, and these will be used in an effort to derail his nomination. Friedman wrote an op-ed earlier this year likening JStreet to the kapos—the Jews who worked for the Nazis policing their own people. It was wrong of him to do so, but it’s something in the heat of a rhetorical moment I myself have done in relation to a disgusting Jewish cartoonist who uses images out of Der Sturmer to portray Israelis he doesn’t like, so I can appreciate Friedman’s emotional impulse. That impulse comes from a deep sense of anger at Jews who use their Jewishness as a shield and weapon simultaneously to delegitimize the democratic actions of a democratic Jewish state. It is about defending your people against those who you believe are siding with your people’s enemies. In the case of JStreet, Friedman’s feelings are merited even if his analogy was wrong.  (And just as I apologized for my use of the term “kapo,” he’d probably do himself some good if he said he’d gone too far in that case—which would, by the way, give him a second shot at explaining why JStreet is egregious in front of a far larger audience.)
Other arguments will be advanced against his nomination, like the fact that Friedman has no diplomatic experience. This is disingenuous. Every administration appoints ambassadors with no diplomatic experience, and aside from generalized bitching, official Washington accepts the practice without complaint. Besides which, one of the ways people get diplomatic experience is to become appointed diplomats. What this really means is that Friedman is neither a member of the foreign service or of the foreign-policy establishment. Well, big deal. Trump is the president and he need not find his Israeli ambassador from the ranks of the permanent State Department bureaucracy or from the membership list of the Council on Foreign Relations. And unlike many ambassadorial appointments, he’s not being rewarded for his financial support.
Anyway, this is all nonsense. What horrifies those who will oppose Friedman isn’t his opinion of JStreet or his credentials, but the fact that he is an outspoken opponent of the two-state solution, a supporter of Israel’s settlements, and a believer that the law passed 20 years ago should be implemented that moves the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is axiomatic to America’s liberals that every one of these things is at the very least short-sighted, or counterproductive, or runs contrary to American interests, or will cause terrible trouble for the U.S. in the Arab and Muslim world. But even those objections pale before the moral rage that asserts it is an act of barbaric immorality to oppose the two-state solution. For not only, in the eyes of its supporters, is it the only possible way out of the perpetual state of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, with Jerusalem divided so that it can serve as the capital of the new Palestinian nation, it is the only way to heal the moral stain of Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank.
There isn’t space here to litigate this; Please go back and read the last 40 years of COMMENTARY to discover the 10,000 reasons why such opinions are problematic at best and highly destructive at worst. Suffice it to say that if you believe the current Israel-Palestinian impasse is a stain on Israel’s moral position in the region, you are free to feast on your own self-righteousness, but your perspective is astoundingly askew. Just to take this week alone, there’s a genocide going on about 300 miles to Israel’s northeast, a nightmarish pseudo-caliphate is enslaving women another 200 miles to the east of that, and a barbaric theocracy with a “destroy the Jewish state” doctrine is amassing power another 400 miles further east of that. The idea that Israel, by comparison to its region, is morally compromised is nothing less than unworldly preening.
As it happens, I am a supporter of the two-state solution in theory; but I have eyes to see and ears to hear. If you choose to believe there will be such a solution under current or future conditions absent a wholesale shift in the mindset of the Palestinians, please enjoy your delusion.   If you are able to cut through the conventional static to consider a different view and how it might actually make such a shift possible, read Daniel Pipes’s profoundly important new essay in the January COMMENTARY right here.
But back to personnel being policy. The reason Trump has chosen Friedman is that he has evidently decided he wants to up-end the conventional approach toward Israel and the Palestinians and go in a radically different direction. This was not predictable from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, when he talked about being “even-handed” and wanting to make a great real-estate deal. It’s possible he believes he can defibrillate the occluded heart of the “peace process” by approaching the Palestinians from a highly aggressive pro-Israel stance. If he actually wants to make a real deal, pursuing the entirely discredited approach of trying to drag the Palestinians to the table at which they refuse to sit is the worst possible strategy anyway.
The scalp hunters will be out for David Friedman, but if Democrats decide to go to war over this nomination, the joke will be on them. For one thing, blocking or derailing Friedman is a vastly more difficult thing to do now than it would have been otherwise because Senate Democrats, living in a fantasy world in which their party would always hold the presidency, stupidly invoked the nuclear option on executive appointments in July 2013 and have now made the passage of such appointments a matter of a simple majority vote in the Senate. For another, Republicans in Congress (with a 52-48 majority) are the nation’s foremost right-wing Zionists now and will meet any attacks on him with delighted counterattacks and defenses. And finally, should they succeed in derailing him, there are many other prominent Americans who share his views to whom Trump could turn. Personnel is policy. This is the policy the president of the United States wants to pursue. He’ll get the ambassador he wants, and he will pursue the policy he wants. Know why? Because he will be the president.