Trump’s Troops: David Friedman, Ambassador to Israel

January 18, 2017

“America and Israel will enjoy unprecedented military and strategic cooperation, and there will be no daylight between the two countries” (Jerusalem Post).

This was David Friedman’s summary of the election programme of then presidential candidate Donald Trump, at the end of October 2016. At that point, 57-year old Friedman had not only been Donald Trump’s lawyer for many years, but he was also one of his closest advisers on issues concerning Israel. A few other policies that Friedman predicted: Jerusalem would be recognised by the US as the capital of Israel, the US embassy would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the United States would support Israel if it decided to annex parts of the West Bank.

When I read Friedman’s radical comments, I wondered if this was simply a case of election rhetoric. But after Trump won the presidential election, he lost little time appointing Friedman as ambassador to Israel. Friedman is probably packing his bags already. As ambassador, Friedman will have the opportunity to turn his plans into policies. And if he is successful, it will be a huge shift in the American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In recent times, to use Friedman’s terms, there has certainly been more light between Israeli and US politics. There has been a certain amount of close collaboration in the military/strategic domain for many years. This was intensified under the Obama administration. At the same time, the US denounced the human rights situation in the West Bank and Gaza. And there was increasingly sharp criticism of the Israeli settlement policy whereby new homes are constantly being built on the West Bank and in Eastern Jerusalem. With respect to Jerusalem, no US president, Republican or Democrat, has ever disputed the worldwide rejection of the annexation of Eastern Jerusalem.

The most recent example of this critical attitude was the US’s abstention from voting in the UN Security Council, which ratified Resolution 2334 at the end of December. This resolution calls upon Israel to immediately halt the construction of settlements. In a further explanation, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the ongoing expansion of the settlements would ultimately prevent a two-state solution. As far as Kerry is concerned, if the settlement policy ultimately led to one state and an annexation of the West Bank, that would be disastrous. “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic – it cannot be both – and it won’t ever really be at peace” (US state department website).

Friedman therefore signifies a radical break with traditional US policy lines. He is convinced that Israel will only be safe if the West Bank is annexed. He also believes that Israel can retain its Jewish character (see Times of Israel). With this, Friedman is positioning himself on the far right in Israeli politics, more right wing in fact than the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who at least purports to still support the two-state policy. Friedman seeks links with the radical colonial agenda, which would make the Occupied Palestinian Territories part of Israel. If the colonial movement finds support and is buoyed by Friedman and therefore the US, the coming Trump years could see further escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The issue, however, is how much ‘light’ remains within the American government. In conversations with senate leaders, Trump’s intended Foreign Minister Rex Tillerson said last week that the two-state solution is the right approach, even though he questioned whether it was realistic (Times of Israel). James Mattis, Trump’s candidate for Defence Minister, also let it be known that he sees a future for the two-state solution and that, as far as he is concerned, Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel (Haaretz). Mattis also suggested that the US must play a role in restoring trust between the Israelis and Palestinians (Haaretz). This is, at least, a more constructive tone than that of Friedman who, in his many columns, pays scant attention to the enormous impact that the settlements have on the lives of many Palestinians (New York Times).

We must wait and see whose opinions prevail in the Trump administration’s foreign policy. But, in the 50th year of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, it is more essential than ever that the Netherlands and the EU continue to push for a lawful solution to the conflict. More forcefully than has been the case so far. For organisations such as PAX, the challenge is to support local partners in the ongoing quest for opportunities for a just peace. And to continue to demand that Dutch and EU policies continue to work towards a just and fair solution to the conflict and bring a halt to the colonisation of the West Bank and the encirclement of Gaza.

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