David Friedman avidly supports expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank, unequivocally rejects a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and wants the US embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Those positions put Friedman — Donald Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer and friend — sharply at odds with the US foreign-policy establishment and entrenched conventional wisdom. So when the president-elect announced that Friedman was his choice to be the next ambassador to Israel, alarm bells started clanging.
J Street, the left-wing Jewish activist group, called Friedman “a horrible choice,” and launched a campaign to block Senate confirmation. Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler, denouncing Friedman’s “extreme views,” said the nomination “underscores, yet again, the extremist agenda of Donald Trump.” In an editorial, The New York Times labeled Friedman’s views “dangerous,” “extremist,” and “reckless.”
Friedman is no diplomat, and his language has not always been diplomatic. In a now-infamous column in June, he smeared J Street’s Jewish supporters as “worse than kapos,” a reference to Jews in the Nazi death camps who cooperated with the SS. That was a repugnant analogy.
What horrifies Friedman’s critics, though, isn’t his choice of words. It is his readiness to slay the long-lived sacred cows of US policy in the Middle East — above all, the egregiously misnamed “peace process” and its delusional goal of a two-state solution.
For decades, American administrations have leaned on Israel to accommodate its Palestinian foes. Under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, it has become a central plank of US policy that the way to neutralize Palestinian hostility is through Israeli compromise, retreat, and forbearance.
It hasn’t worked. Israel has gone to extraordinary lengths — from agreeing to the creation of the Palestinian Authority, to offering shared control of Jerusalem, to expelling Jews from the Gaza Strip and handing the entire territory to the Palestinians. The results have been catastrophic. Palestinian society is more rejectionist than ever. Opinion polls consistently show large majorities of Palestinians rejecting the legitimacy of any Jewish state in the region. As recently as last week, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey reported that 65 percent of Palestinians do not support a two-state solution to the conflict.
Isn’t it plausible to conclude that the existing approach should be scrapped? Friedman’s view is that US policy should be sharply reoriented — away from pressuring Israel to keep taking more “risks for peace,” and toward pressuring the Palestinians to abandon their oft-stated ambition of eliminating the Jewish state. The incoming Trump administration, Friedman explained recently, “doesn’t see much opportunity for progress until the Palestinians renounce violence and accept Israel as a Jewish state.’’
So long as the Palestinian Authority is obsessed with demonizing Jews and extolling terrorists rather than with building up the institutions of a healthy state on the land it already controls, Friedman argues, the US government should not restrain Israel from acting in its own best interests. That means not “dictat[ing] to Israel where it can and cannot build” housing, and not “seeking to impose” a two-state paradigm that requires uprooting Israeli Jews from their West Bank or Jerusalem homes.
In liberal circles, these may be heresies. But the Oslo “peace process” failed, and prudent policy-making should absorb the lessons of that failure and adjust. America’s overriding interest in the Israel-Palestinian arena is not to ensure the creation of another dysfunctional Arab dictatorship. It is to ensure the strength and security of the world’s only Jewish state, an indispensable US ally in a dangerous part of the world.
Of course it is too soon to know whether Friedman has the personal skills to succeed as ambassador, or to what extent his views accurately reflect the policies Trump will pursue. But this much, at least, seems clear: Trump envisions a dramatic break with past US policy. The establishment won’t like it, but it’s about time.