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Trump’s New Ambassador to Israel Heralds a Radical Change in Policy
The appointment of David Friedman might be seen as a honeymoon in Jerusalem, but it’s a bold divorce from decades of U.S.-Israel policy.
Having been through several presidential transitions, I know a radical break with past U.S. policy when I see one, particularly when it comes to Middle East affairs.
And make no mistake, that’s what is coming. Two data points speak volumes about what a transition from President Barack Obama’s administration to Donald Trump’s is going to hold for the Middle East peace process and the U.S.-Israeli relationship: first, the announcement of David Friedman as the president-elect’s choice for ambassador to Israel; and second, indications that the new administration is serious about moving the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Changes in approach and policy — even abrupt ones — are both natural and understandable from one administration to the next, even in the Middle East, where by and large there has been more continuity than change in American policy.
In January 1993, having just finished four years of working for George H.W. Bush’s administration, I was told by the new Clinton team in no uncertain terms that the phrase “obstacle to peace” as applied to Israeli settlement activity (words that now seem almost ridiculously weak and empty in relationship to the problem) would be stricken from the new administration’s peace process lexicon; anyone working on the issue was forbidden to use them. Part of the logic was that with Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party then in power, there was a clear desire to reduce the strains in U.S.-Israeli ties on this issue. Indeed, Rabin — even though settlement building didn’t stop during his tenure — proved to be fundamentally committed to negotiated agreements with his neighbors in ways his predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, was not.
In January 2001, having worked for eight intense years under Bill Clinton on the peace process, the wheel turned again under George W. Bush. As a civil servant, I wanted to stay — but it was clearly going to be under very changed circumstances. The Bush administration dismantled the special Middle East coordinator’s office; I was given a new title — advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations. The only problem was there were no negotiations and nobody to advise. Secretary of State Colin Powell would eventually find work for me, but it was clear that the Bush administration wasn’t going to make Middle East peace a priority. And it was right not to: The peace process wasn’t ready for prime time.
The impending transition to a Trump presidency, however, looks far different from the previous ones I experienced. On both process and substance, there’s likely to be a fundamental break with past precedent, policy, and personnel. At least that’s what seems intended.
With regard to Friedman, there are several firsts. I can’t recall an ambassadorial appointment to such a sensitive diplomatic post being made this early in a transition. Usually, there would be a longer period of review; the secretary of state would be involved in the decision about who would be the best candidate. Nor in recent years is there a precedent for an individual without government experience serving in that position. U.S. ambassadors to Israel have either been career foreign service officers or individuals with government experience, boasting deep knowledge of the issues and diplomatic policy and practice.
Looking for someone outside the system isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Professional diplomats and experts certainly don’t have the market cornered on what it takes to be a good ambassador. And Friedman clearly has a great deal of experience with Israel and apparently knows Hebrew as well.
Instead, what concerns me about the departure — and it’s a radical departure — are the statements that Friedman has made on policy issues. Whether they represent his personal views or will come to reflect the policies of the Trump administration is not yet clear. What is clear is that Friedman holds views on some issues, such as support for Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and opposition to a two-state solution, that contradict years of U.S. policy. Other views — for example, that it wouldn’t be illegal to annex the West Bank — contradict the views of the Israeli government, too. At a minimum, Friedman’s hard-edged policy preferences represent a possible shift to these views under the new administration.
Indeed, this shift may already have occurred on one issue: moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Trump has indicated that he wants to do this; senior aide Kellyanne Conway said this week that it is a “very big priority,” and there are reports that the Trump team is already surveying sites. That the announcement by the transition team of Friedman’s selection as ambassador included a quote indicating that he looks forward to representing the United States from the embassy in Jerusalem is a stunning departure and perhaps a harbinger of things to come.
The key question, of course, is how much influence Friedman will have in the new administration. If the past several ones are any indication, he may not have much. Administrations tend to conduct really sensitive Israel business directly with the prime minister’s office from the upper reaches of the White House, State Department, and National Security Council — rather than through the ambassador. Moreover, it’s not at all clear who will have the president’s ear on U.S.-Israel relations. Jared Kushner, anyone? One thing is certain: There will be many players, including the national security advisor, the secretaries of state and defense, and perhaps Trump’s son-in-law. And they are all much more proximate to the president than the U.S. ambassador in Israel.
Still, elections have consequences. And when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship, we’re in for a dramatic change. Trump’s perception is that given the dysfunction of the Obama years, the relationship has nowhere to go but up — and he intends to take it there. It may be that within a year or so Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu — two strong and willful personalities — may be annoying the hell out of one another. But for now the appointment of Friedman confirms the obvious: A new honeymoon period has begun.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images