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Book review

In new book, Trump’s Israel envoy hammers 4 rocky years into a smooth path to peace

David Friedman’s memoir ‘Sledgehammer’ finds the former ambassador unsnarling years of broken diplomacy for a new Middle East, though others recall a less tidy narrative

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Then-US president Donald Trump, center, is flanked by then-ambassador to Israel David Friedman, left, and then-senior adviser Jared Kushner in the Oval Office on August 12, 2020. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Then-US president Donald Trump, center, is flanked by then-ambassador to Israel David Friedman, left, and then-senior adviser Jared Kushner in the Oval Office on August 12, 2020. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

It was less than three months into David Friedman’s tenure as US ambassador to Israel, and he was already thinking big — about using his position to transform the Middle East.

He shared his plan with then-US president Donald Trump during a brief visit back to Washington in July 2017: “I want to move the goalposts back to where they belong with regard to the conflict and work with [senior White House adviser] Jared [Kushner] to perhaps make peace from the outside in — beginning with Israel’s natural allies. While the Palestinians are dysfunctional, there are Arab neighbors that may be ready to normalize with Israel.”

“Okay, go for it then. Good luck,” Trump replied, and with that Friedman returned to Israel and got to work, playing a central role in the president’s subsequent decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there, recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and introduce an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. All of these steps helped lead the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco to agree to normalize ties with Israel in Trump-brokered agreements known as the Abraham Accords.

That’s the narrative Friedman builds in his new memoir “Sledgehammer,” (Broadside Books) which hit the shelves on Tuesday. But it’s one that contradicts other firsthand accounts and reporting on the formation of the Abraham Accords, which recall them as a last-minute change of course by the Trump administration after its controversial peace plan led then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare that he had US backing to immediately begin annexing large parts of the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s announcement sparked furious reactions from across the Arab world. Fortunately for the Trump administration, it also gave Abu Dhabi the needed space to offer normalization in exchange for halting the annexation plan.

In Friedman’s telling, though, the accords were less a lucky break than a natural outgrowth of his years as Trump’s man in Tel Aviv and then Jerusalem.  He succinctly explains how each accomplishment led to the next, thanks to his no-nonsense approach, which viewed the State Department he worked under as the heart of the “Deep State,” the Palestinian Authority as inept and full of empty threats, and the Arab world as a unit that “instinctively gauge[s] the strength of their opponents.”

To get things done under such circumstances, one needs to take a sledgehammer to old norms, the author says, explaining the title of the book, which is also a reference to his smashing of an ersatz wall to open an East Jerusalem archaeological site — a delicious metaphor seized on by both supporters and opponents.

US Ambassador David Friedman breaks down a specially built wall in front of the Pilgrimage Road, at a ceremony in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, on June 30, 2019. (Facebook/Screen capture)

But when your only tool is a sledgehammer, every problem looks like a wall that needs to be whacked down. The Trump administration indeed smashed through old norms, attempting to rebuild the contours of the Middle East’s messiest conflicts by fiat rather than consensus.

Friedman’s book takes the same approach, pulverizing the more familiar narrative of the administration’s chaotic Mideast diplomacy into a flattened, linear and convenient account that’s not altogether convincing.

Along the way, Friedman also bludgeons opponents with whom he had scores to settle and sometimes clobbers through inconvenient facts to offer a view of his time as ambassador that portrays him in the best possible light.

‘The best lawyer I ever met’

Several times throughout the 240-page memoir, Friedman, 63, shares how he was called on to offer a final piece of guidance to the president in order to push a desired policy initiative over the finish line. Such was the case with the decisions on Jerusalem in 2017 and the Golan Heights in 2019, as well as the one to unveil the long-awaited peace plan in 2019.

Sledgehammer, by David Friedman

To shed light as to why Trump so trusted his Israel envoy, Friedman begins the book with the story of how he met The Donald in 2004. Friedman was at the height of his career as a New York bankruptcy lawyer, and a mutual friend put him in touch with Trump to assist in “extricat[ing]” the real estate mogul from his casino albatrosses in Atlantic City.

Friedman managed to save Trump tens of millions of dollars, and while the businessman wasn’t thrilled about being charged a $5 million fee for the job, he eventually paid up, telling Friedman, “You are the best lawyer I ever met and I should have known I could never get the better of you. Keep the money and thanks!”

An Orthodox Jew, Friedman places himself prominently within the view of Trump as a messenger of heaven, popularized by Evangelical Christians and other supporters.

“Looking back on those days, I can’t help but think that perhaps God was boosting my reputation with an individual who he knew would one day place me in a position of authority where I could perform God’s will,” he writes of his unlikely rise to one of the top US diplomatic posts.

New US ambassador to Israel David Friedman kisses the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

He also compares himself to Queen Esther from the Purim story, who “uses her new position of royalty to protect the Jewish people.”

The son of a prominent Conservative rabbi in New York, Friedman carries his father’s admiration for Zionism with him, even aiming subtle jabs at US Jewry, as when he describes his “transformational” first trip to Israel in 1971: “I saw a people swelling with pride in their Jewish nation, possessing a self-confidence and collective ambition unknown to the Jews of the Diaspora.”

‘Tactical mistake’

That same zeal for Israel is what leads Friedman to ask Trump for a role in formulating his Middle East policy during the 2016 presidential campaign. In a Tuesday interview with The Times of Israel, Friedman said he did so with the goal in mind of becoming Trump’s ambassador if the GOP nominee won.

His confirmation process was rocky, and in an effort to receive bipartisan support Friedman was forced to either soften or walk back some positions he took in columns published by the right-wing Israel National News site.

That meant apologizing for having once called supporters of the dovish Middle East lobby J Street “worse than kapos,” — Jewish prisoners who collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Reflecting on the remark in “Sledgehammer,” Friedman refers to it as a “tactical mistake.”

David Friedman, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the US ambassador to Israel, concludes testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Feb. 16, 2017. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Once in office, he describes setting out to shake things up against a cadre of State Department “elites.”

“I would have to fight against this establishment for every big win we had: moving the embassy, resetting policy, and moving forward toward peace,” he claims.

Let it be said: With Friedman as envoy, the administration indeed changed considerably — often ignoring the advice and doomsaying of more seasoned diplomats and policy wonks — including by realizing Israel’s dream of US recognition of Jerusalem as its capital, complete with a transfer of the US embassy to the holy city from Tel Aviv.

The US also closed its longtime consulate in Jerusalem, which for decades served as Washington’s de facto conduit for diplomacy with the Palestinians, or as Friedman puts it: the State Department’s “private megaphone in one of the world’s most important and sensitive cities… a self-promoting and self-sustaining echo-chamber that hadn’t had a new thought in generations.”

US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman speaks at the official opening ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Friedman and others have characterized the decision to close the consulate as necessitated by the embassy transfer, but he writes in the book that he targeted the mission for closure years earlier due to the positions of diplomats there.

After one of the officials at the mission allegedly told a Shin Bet counterpart that the Western Wall is on occupied territory, during preparations for Trump’s visit to the site in May 2017, Friedman writes in the book, he “made a note to myself to have the consulate shut down,” and did so two years later.

Outfoxing Abbas

Friedman had a close relationship with Netanyahu, whom he describes working in tandem with to thwart PA President Mahmoud Abbas in a battle for Trump’s support during the president’s 2017 visit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left and US Ambassador David Friedman, right, attend a ceremony in Jerusalem, May 21, 2017. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

According to the former envoy, Abbas passed along a message to Trump via a major philanthropist — whom two officials familiar with the matter identified to The Times of Israel as World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder — that Ramallah would be willing to make major, never-before-agreed-to concessions in order to reach a peace deal with Jerusalem.

Upon arriving in Israel, Trump asked President Reuven Rivlin why it was Netanyahu who was refusing to make peace while Abbas was desperate to do so. “That last comment knocked everyone off their chairs,” Friedman writes.

In an attempt at damage control, Friedman notified Netanyahu of the development and suggested the premier prepare a short video of remarks made by Abbas in which he allegedly incited violence against Israel.

The Israelis ran with the idea and Netanyahu showed it to Trump in their first meeting. The president was shocked and would go on to berate Abbas over the tape, which has still never been publicized, when they met in Bethlehem later that week.

US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas shake hands during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/MANDEL NGAN)

“You tricked me in DC! You talked there about your commitment to peace, but the Israelis showed me your involvement in incitement,” Trump shouted at a shocked Abbas, according to later reports.

Abbas, for his part, was said to have countered that Trump was being played: “You have the CIA. Ask them to analyze the film clips and you’ll discover that they were taken out of context or fabricated with the aim of inciting against the Palestinians.”

Nailed it?

Throughout the book, Friedman appears to delight in pointing out the inaccuracies of others. He notes that former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson claimed that Israel had captured the city in 1996, not 1967, and did not appear to know that Congress had deemed Jerusalem to be Israel’s undivided capital in a 1995 act; he accuses the press of pushing a false story about him funding terrorists and spreading fake news about him being afraid to visit the West Bank.

But the book suffers from what appear to be errors or questionable claims on Friedman’s part, many of which end up undercutting the reliability of his other accounts.

He writes that during his confirmation hearing, J Street spent nearly $100,000 on compiling a dossier of opposition research on him, which was given to each Senate Democrat.

But while the left-wing pro-Israel group did try to throw a wrench in Friedman’s confirmation process, it told The Times of Israel that it “did not spend a cent” on the research into Friedman, which was compiled by another group.

He refers to the West Bank settlement of Adam near Jerusalem as “perhaps the most liberal community in all of Judea and Samaria,” while speaking about a terror attack there in 2018, which he attempts to blame on PA President Mahmoud Abbas, following the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In fact, voting records show Adam to be as supportive of right-wing parties as other settlements, if not more so.

US Ambassador David Friedman pays a condolence visit to the family of Yotam Ovadia who was killed in a terror attack in the West Bank settlement of Adam, July 30, 2018. (Miri Tzahi/Yesha Council)

He claims that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared settlements were legitimate, when in fact Pompeo said that they were “not per se inconsistent with international law.”

He mischaracterizes Israel’s Supreme Court decisions on the Bedouin hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar as demolition orders, when the court only greenlit the demolition if the state chose to take that route.

He also recalls seeing an article in the Jerusalem Post in which Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs “was advocating that American Jews stop supporting Israel” amid anger over Netanyahu reneging on the 2016 Western Wall compromise deal, which he incorrectly dates to 2017, and accuses him of calling for a retaliatory “boycott” of Israel.

But Jacobs told The Times of Israel on Monday that he never made such comments and no articles from that time period in the Jerusalem Post or any other news outlet report Jacobs calling for a boycott or a cessation of support.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, center, and other progressive Jews clashing with security guards in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 16, 2017. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/via JTA)

Pressed on the matter, Friedman said Tuesday that the article he recalled didn’t in fact use the phrase “stop supporting Israel or “boycott,” but rather stated Jacobs said that American Jews would be forced “to rethink how they support the Israeli government” following Netanyahu’s decision.

Friedman appeared to be referring to an Associated Press story which introduced a quote from Jacobs by saying that Netanyahu’s about-face “could lead many to rethink their support for Israel.” The quote attributed to Jacobs read as follows: “There is a limit to how many times you can be delegitimized and insulted.” Nonetheless, Friedman insisted Tuesday that Jacobs was “effectively advocating a boycott.”

Recalling a heated closed-door meeting with Sen. Bernie Sanders during his confirmation process, Friedman says in the book that the Vermont lawmaker demanded a response within a week as to whether financial aid to Gaza was more important than aid to Israel.

Sanders’ foreign policy adviser Matt Duss declined to divulge the exact details of the private conversation but advised taking the ex-envoy’s account with a grain of salt. Friedman, he says, lied under oath by vowing not to advocate for Israeli annexation of the West Bank, if confirmed.

In this Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017 photo, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, right, talks with David Friedman, center, nominated to be US ambassador to Israel, accompanied by former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman on Capitol Hill in Washington, during Friedman’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Asked about the pledge on Tuesday, Friedman said he gave it in reference to annexation “on a standalone unilateral basis,” and indeed he did indicate it would have to be part of an agreement between “the parties” at the time.

His decision to back the move as ambassador, he said, was part of his support for the Trump peace plan, which offered marginal concessions to the Palestinians, such as the West Bank territory that remained after Israel would declare sovereignty over every one of its settlements as well as the entire Jordan Valley.

Few would argue, though, that the proposal, rejected out of hand by the Palestinians, represented an agreement of any kind, except possibly between him and Netanyahu.

Annexation now

Friedman admits in “Sledgehammer” that he was initially hesitant about putting forth the peace plan due to fears that engaging with the Palestinians early on would require him to shelve his plans regarding Jerusalem recognition.

But as he tells it, the plan was just one of a number of diplomatic moves aimed ultimately not at peace with the Palestinians, but rather at opening the Jewish state to the Arab world.

“Jared saw a real desire among the Gulf states to be further aligned with Israel, but they needed something that would give them diplomatic and political cover. We hypothesized that a ‘reasonable’ peace plan might provide that cover, even if the Palestinians opposed it,” he writes.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addressing a briefing hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, February 9, 2020 (Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)

Speaking to The Times of Israel on Tuesday, he referred to the Jerusalem and Golan recognitions, as well as Pompeo’s 2019 decision to rescind a State Department memo deeming Israeli settlements to be illegal, as part of a larger effort “to chip away at the Palestinian veto on Israel making peace with its Arab neighbors.”

A longtime backer of the settlement movement, Friedman writes that he was “adamant that we could not demand that Israel concede territory to another sovereign state. This solved two problems: First, it removed the security risk from Palestinian autonomy, and, second, it removed the religious and ideological complication of Israel conceding land. If Israel retained military and security control, it had not technically relinquished any territory, even if the Palestinians were given a ‘state.”

Friedman clearly left his mark on the plan, which envisions Israel annexing all Jewish communities beyond the Green Line so long as it agrees not to build in the remaining areas of the West Bank that the plan earmarks for a future Palestinian sub-sovereign state.

The plan, presented in January 2020, was detailed in a 50-page document that even included maps of the “realistic two-state solution” that the proposal envisioned.

But the proposal’s architects neglected to include a timeline for when Israel could start annexing territory along the contours of the plan.

As Trump stood behind him at a White House ceremony to unfurl the plan, Netanyahu announced that Israel would annex all areas the peace plan envisioned as remaining part of the Jewish state. He told reporters immediately after the ceremony that he was going to bring the annexation plan to the cabinet for approval just five days later.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event with US President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, January 28, 2020, to announce the Trump administration’s much-anticipated plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Shortly thereafter, the book recounts how Friedman got a call from Kushner: “Did you know that Bibi is annexing the freaking Jordan Valley today?”

According to Friedman’s account, he and Kushner went across the street to Blair House, where Netanyahu was staying, and proceeded to have “a difficult and unpleasant meeting.”

“Netanyahu said emphatically that we had a deal for immediate sovereignty. Jared responded that he thought the mapping process was a first step, which would take some time. He added that the president said he would recognize sovereignty ‘after the completion of the mapping process.’ To which Netanyahu responded that no mapping was necessary for the Jordan Valley. To which Jared responded, ‘We never discussed that,’” he writes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, center, and then-tourism minister Yariv Levin during a meeting to discuss mapping extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, held in the Ariel settlement, February 24, 2020. (David Azagury/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Netanyahu was ultimately forced to cave, agreeing to a mapping committee that would take months to progress.

Asked on Tuesday how such a key detail regarding the implementation of such an explosive move wasn’t ironed out in advance, Friedman took a long pause before acknowledging, “the disconnect is regrettable.”

On to Abu Dhabi

That disconnect barely registers in “Sledgehammer,” even though it was hard not to notice in the lead-up to and aftermath of the peace plan’s release.

Shortly after the unveiling ceremony, Friedman held a briefing with reporters during which he was asked whether there would be a “waiting period” before Israel could move forward with annexation.

While he said that a mapping committee would still need to draw up the exact borders of the land Israel would be able to annex, Friedman emphatically responded: “Israel does not have to wait at all.”

Hours later, though, Kushner went on GZERO Media and said that the US would not support Israeli annexation until after Israel’s March 2 election.

In this photo taken on May 14, 2018, US ambassador to Israel David Friedman listens as Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner delivers a speech during the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Friedman downplays the split in “Sledgehammer.”

“My expectation was that we had at least a month to go through the mapping of territory and the legal process and see what might develop before a sovereignty declaration would occur. Jared hoped it might take longer so that he could maximize his time to trade a deferral of sovereignty for a peace deal,” he writes.

However, in “Trump’s peace,” which came out in December and covers the same period, Israeli journalist Barak Ravid writes that Netanyahu chose to make his annexation announcement because Friedman assured the premier that he would have US backing, even though the ambassador never checked how his boss felt about the matter.

Friedman has vehemently denied that account, pointing out that the Trump peace plan itself greenlights Israeli annexation and that the former president was well aware of and supported its implications.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), then US National Security Advisor John Bolton (C) and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman tour the Jordan Valley on June 23, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The ex-envoy said Tuesday that Ravid never interviewed him for the book, which appears to rely on the recollections of other players, such as Kushner and former special representative for international negotiations Avi Berkowitz.

The notion “that I was running my own agenda with Netanyahu about sovereignty and not letting the president know, contrary to the wishes of Jared — it’s 100% false, and I hope that’s reflected in my book,” Friedman said on Tuesday. “Now, I don’t know what Avi thinks. I didn’t talk to Avi every day. Avi wasn’t relevant to this, but I spoke to Jared every day about these issues.”

The annexation timing ended up being a moot point, though, as on June 12, 2020, UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba penned an op-ed in the Yedioth Ahronoth Hebrew daily in which he warned Israelis that moving forward with annexation would squander a rare opportunity that was arising for Jerusalem to normalize relations with Abu Dhabi.

Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba gestures during an event with US House Speaker Paul Ryan, at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Kushner and Al Otaiba launched negotiations in the weeks that followed that led to Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signing the Abraham Accords three months later on the White House lawn, with Morocco joining the agreements shortly thereafter.

Yet, Friedman rejected the implication that the Abraham Accords were born in the final months of the Trump administration, thanks to the opening created by Al Otaiba.

Al Otaiba’s op-ed “was a public airing of discussions that had been taking place for years” between Trump officials and their allies in the Gulf about the possibility of normalizing ties with Israel, he said on Tuesday.

Friedman pointed to Trump’s first trip abroad, during which he went to Saudi Arabia and began planting the seed for such a possibility.

US President Donald Trump (center-left), Saudi Arabia’s King Salman (center-right), and other leaders pose for a group photo during the Arabic Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. (AFP/MANDEL NGAN)

However, the former ambassador acknowledged that he and his colleagues in the administration did not know how such improved relations would look and for the first two years, they accepted the conclusion of former secretary of state John Kerry who said that the Arab world would not agree to fully normalize relations with Israel before the Palestinians were given a state of their own.

As US ties warmed with both Israel and the Gulf states, the administration came to reject Kerry’s assumption and began envisioning something bigger, Friedman said.

Still, it was the step by Al Otaiba that provided the clarity the Trump administration needed for how to act next. Would the UAE ambassador have taken that step if not for the US moves orchestrated by Friedman? “Sledgehammer” answers that question with an emphatic “no” and even has someone willing to stake his reputation in defense of that narrative, as opposed to other, less rosy accounts that frequently rely on anonymous sourcing.

But given the manner in which the former ambassador lays out his description of events, readers are left not really knowing whom to believe.

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