Transition 2016

A View from Jerusalem of a Trump Ambassadorial Appointment

By Benjamin Wittes, Paul Rosenzweig
Monday, December 19, 2016, 11:19 AM

JERUSALEM — The news that President-elect Donald Trump has named as his ambassador to Israel a far-right bankrupcy lawyer named named David Friedman came to us while we were in—of all places—Jerusalem, while we were attending a weeklong set of briefings by Israelis and Palestinians put on by Academic Exchange. The naming of an ambassador to a country, even a country in a conflict zone like Israel, normally does not merit comment on Lawfare. This one, however, does, both because of the inflammatory nature of the appointment and because of the inflammatory context in which the nomination takes place. The result of the two is a distinct possibility that this particular nomination may be associated with violence.

Friedman is not your typical choice to represent the United States to Israel. Here’s how the New York Times describes the man:

Mr. Friedman, whose outspoken views stand in stark contrast to decades of American policy toward Israel, did not wait long on Thursday to signal his intention to upend the American approach. In a statement from the Trump transition team announcing his nomination, he said he looked forward to doing the job “from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

Through decades of Republican and Democratic administrations, the embassy has been in Tel Aviv, as the State Department insists that the status of Jerusalem — which both Israel and the Palestinians see as their rightful capital — can be determined only through negotiations as part of an overall peace deal.

Mr. Friedman, who has no diplomatic experience, has said that he does not believe it would be illegal for Israel to annex the occupied West Bank and he supports building new settlements there, which Washington has long condemned as illegitimate and an obstacle to peace.

Not content with these incendiary views, Mr. Friedman manifested his contempt for those opposing them, comparing them to the “kapos” of the Holocaust. For those not steeped in the history of the Holocaust, the offensiveness of Friedman’s comparison between Jews supportive of a two-state approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with those Jews in the Nazi camps who helped run things in exchange for small favors and longer lives may not be immediately apparent. But it’s roughly as if an African American politician publicly called other black officials Uncle Toms and then refused to back down from it. Again, from the New York Times:

Mr. Friedman has made clear his disdain for those American Jews — especially those connected to J Street — who support a two-state solution for the Israelis and the Palestinians. Writing in June on the website of Arutz Sheva, an Israeli media organization, Mr. Friedman compared J Street supporters to “kapos,” the Jews who cooperated with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

“The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty,” he wrote. “But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas — it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”

At a private session this month at the Saban Forum, an annual gathering of Israeli and American foreign policy figures, Mr. Friedman declined to disavow the comments and even intensified the sentiment.

Questioned by Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of the Atlantic, Mr. Friedman was asked if he would meet with various groups, including J Street. Mr. Friedman said he would probably meet with individuals but not with the group, according to several people who attended.

Mr. Goldberg then raised the kapos comparison and asked if he stood by it. Mr. Friedman did not back away. “They’re not Jewish, and they’re not pro-Israel,” he said, according to the people in the room.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction in Israel to the appointment has been sharply divided along ideological lines, with the right-wing nationalists who make up the current government enthusiastic and more moderate figures ranging from reserved to despondent. The lefty daily Haaretz actually called on the Senate to reject Trump’s choice. “If the settlers had a state of their own in the West Bank, he might be suitable to serve as ambassador there, and maybe not even that, because his basic identification must be with overall American interests,” the paper commented. “If Friedman’s appointment fails to pass in the Senate after close scrutiny of his background and a thorough hearing, that will be a blessing for Israel.”

Exacerbating the basic problem of the ambassador-designate’s expressed attitudes towards the conflict into which he is being sent is that he’s coming to Israel in the context of Trump’s promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a project for which he has expressed enthusiasm. As the Times story reflects, Friedman and Trump emphasized this point in the very announcement of his appointment itself, referring to “Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

To be clear, we have no in principle objection to moving the embassy to West Jerusalem, which is uncontroversially part of Israel and will remain so, as its capital, in any conceivable peace deal. But there are very good reasons the United States, and every other country, has kept its embassy in Tel Aviv. One of them is that Jerusalem’s status remains deeply contested. To call Jerusalem, without the modifier “West,” “Israel’s eternal capital” is to at least flirt with a position the United States has never taken before—that is, to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the city as a whole, not just its claim to a capital in part of it. It is certainly the President’s right to do that. But it places the United States squarely behind the Israeli view of one of the most sensitive and delicate issues in a conflict which it has historically played a role in mediating.

More importantly, the status quo in Jerusalem is a careful and precarious balancing act, the upsetting of which always risks unleashing violence. This city is a powder keg, some of whose flashpoints Ben outlined in a photo essay some time back. Just in the last year, it has seen a spree of impromptu stabbings by self-radicalized individuals. The combination of provocative Israeli building, Palestinian conspiracy theories about Israeli intentions vis a vis the Temple Mount, and the cheek-by-jowl living arrangements of mutually hostile Israelis and Palestinians makes Jerusalem a china shop into which American presidents should not introduce bulls. This is a place where symbolism matters a great deal and people often respond violently to threats to their symbolic politics.

One predictable result of announcing an embassy move to Jerusalem and naming an ambassador to Israel who wishes to see settlements expanded and the West Bank annexed to Israel is violence. We don’t pretend to know what the trigger for that violence will be. Nor do we defend the propriety of anyone’s doing anything violent, rash, stupid, or dangerous. But you mess with the Jerusalem status quo at your peril, and (as one colleague of Paul’s, a foreign national working in the West Bank put it) Trump is playing with matches in a gas station here. There may well be a heavy price to pay for such games.