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Interview'I think Trump has an incredible legacy'

No longer US ambassador, David Friedman is sticking to his sledgehammers

The ex-envoy maintains the last 4 years were an unequivocal success, thanks to the White House’s ‘inexperienced’ crew, which smashed precedent and forged a new path

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the Western Wall on the final day of his tenure, January 20, 2021 (Courtesy)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the Western Wall on the final day of his tenure, January 20, 2021 (Courtesy)

David Friedman still believes.

The bankruptcy lawyer who became one of Donald Trump’s most trusted foreign policy advisers came into his role as US ambassador to Israel with a clearly defined conservative, pro-Israel ideology, and he left office with that worldview firmly intact.

Friedman maintains that by coming in as outsiders without any diplomatic experience, he and others in the administration were able to smash precedents and deliver a number of policy objectives long sought by Israel and many in the United States: moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, normalizing with parts of the Arab world, pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, threatening the International Criminal Court over a war crimes investigation into Israel, declaring that Israel’s West Bank settlements do not violate international law, and calling the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement “a manifestation of anti-Semitism.”

“The [US] foreign policy elites spent no time with anyone but Israeli foreign policy elites in developing their views,” Friedman told The Times of Israel on Monday from the porch of his non-ambassadorial apartment in Jerusalem.

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)

He takes pride in his breaking of barriers, which in 2019 extended beyond metaphor to actually sledgehammering open a wall at the unveiling of a new archaeological site in Jerusalem’s City of David, which lies underneath the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. He drew fire for such a move in the midst of the city’s sensitive status quo.

He still believes the proposed “deal of the century” Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, which had absolutely no official Palestinian buy-in, will help get things moving in the Middle East. And while he believes Trump’s legacy was damaged by the events of January 6, he remains firm in his conviction that Donald Trump did wonders for Israel and the Middle East.

“I think he’s got an incredible legacy,” he said.

US President Donald Trump, left, turns to give a pen to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019 after signing the official proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. From left, White House adviser Jared Kushner, US special envoy Jason Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Friedman, an Orthodox Jewish lawyer who had represented Trump in his business dealings, had no experience in diplomacy before he assumed his post in 2017. But he says he had a different type of experience, while his predecessors “were completely detached from Israeli society.”

“The one thing I brought to the table that I think was different than my predecessors was that I know the Israeli people, I know them all,” he said, in comments that made clear that he was referring primarily to Jewish Israelis. “You know, I’ve been [to Israel] probably 75-100 times before I got this job. And I engaged with Israelis who are deeply religious and deeply secular and everybody in between. I think I have a pretty good understanding of what makes Israel tick.”

Friedman had no shortage of detractors. Among other things, he has been derided for helping turn Israel into a partisan wedge issue in the US, and he has been pilloried for his support for the settlements and seemingly one-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the New Yorker, when he first came into office, he suggested that Egypt should “take back” Gazans.

“David Friedman is a walking wrecking crew to both the American Jewish consensus and bipartisan consensus on Israel,” Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg tweeted in March.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on October 5, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Still, the New York Times called Friedman “one of America’s most influential envoys,” and by all accounts he played a pivotal role in shaping Trump’s policies toward Israel and the Middle East.

Working closely with Trump’s special representative Jason Greenblatt and senior adviser Jared Kushner, Friedman convinced Trump to adopt their recommendations over those of senior administration officials who pushed a more traditional stance toward Israeli-Palestinian issues.

“We did everything we thought we could do,” Friedman said he told Kushner in a recent post-election phone call. “We worked as hard as we could until noon on January 20 to create as many wins for America and the president as we could.”

‘You have to own your words’

Even after Trump’s electoral defeat in November 2020  — and the loss of Republican Senate control shortly thereafter —  Friedman continues to see the former US president as a uniquely skilled politician.

“I think he’s the greatest retail politician in history,” Friedman posited. “I think he is uniquely able to convey a sense of empathy. People say that he’s not empathetic.  I think just the opposite. I think he is the most talented in making people think and feel that he cares about them.”

Friedman, who came to know Trump as a businessman, feels his career as a developer was a major political asset. “He comes from this white-collar family but in a blue-collar business. He spent his whole life on job sites with lunch pail guys and women, doing riveting and sheetrock, and so he really knows working-class America. And I think that came across.”

He likened Barack Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s lofty rhetorical styles to Chinese food that leaves you unsated an hour later.

The pro-Trump rally at the US Capitol, Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021 (Lloyd Wolf via JTA)

“You get the rhetoric, you walk out of there feeling good, and you ask yourself, how’s this going to affect me, and it doesn’t, it doesn’t affect anybody,” he said. “Trump was able to take political principles and to translate them into on-the-ground benefits to working-class America. And I don’t think anyone’s been able to do that like him before and I don’t think anyone will be able to do it again. It’s because he’s not scripted, he comes across as being entirely authentic. That authenticity resonates and most of that authenticity comes across as being a guy who just wants to make people’s lives better. And I don’t think anyone has been as good as him in the past doing that.”

Despite the obvious esteem in which he holds Trump, Friedman is critical of the way the president spoke and behaved during some notable episodes.

He has not spoken to Trump about his comments on the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, nor about the turbulent — and ultimately violent — final weeks of his presidency.

Friedman argues that the media reaction to Trump’s August 15, 2017, press conference on the Charlottesville violence, in which the US president said there were “very fine people, on both sides,” was unfair, though he admits that he would not have chosen the words Trump used, calling them an “unforced error.”

“Just read the transcript. He made it abundantly clear immediately after saying there were fine people on both sides — immediately, immediately — the next words out of his mouth were, ‘Of course I’m not talking about white supremacists.”

(In fact, Trump qualified his remarks a few questions later, saying “and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists — because they should be condemned totally.”)

Friedman was “more upset” with Trump’s rhetoric during the January 6, 2021, “Save America” rally just before thousands of his supporters stormed the US Capitol building, in which Trump riled up a crowd to march to the Capitol to stop the certification of the Electoral College votes.

US Vice President Mike Pence (L) and US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi look on as the the count of electoral votes continues in the House Chamber during a reconvening of a joint session of Congress on January 07, 2021 in Washington, DC (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

“I just didn’t think it had any place to go,” Friedman said. “I just didn’t see how it would end well because the Congress going to certify a winner, there was no question about that… I don’t think he had any expectation that it would lead to violence. I don’t think he expected that.”

“But I do think that his rhetoric contributed to it, and everyone has to own their words. It’s just unfortunate,” said Friedman, who himself had refused to admit that Trump lost the election until January 8, and did not speak out publicly following the storming of the Capitol.

But what really gets him angry is the fact that former administration officials are now reportedly being blackballed from private sector work, or in his words, “canceled.”

“A lot of people that worked really, really hard for four years, to represent the United States, and to grow and help and make the US a stronger, better, more prosperous country, they worked their asses off day and night for four years, and now because of the world that we live in, they can’t get jobs, because they’ve all been canceled,” he said.

“Maybe they would’ve been canceled without January 6, but January 6 gave a lot of people an easy out to deprive these people. It’s just ridiculous because none of these people had anything to do with January 6, and all of these people were motivated by the highest aspirations to serve the United States.”

Even with his criticism of the final weeks of the Trump administration, Friedman is convinced that the 45th president’s legacy will improve with time: “Obviously, the Trump legacy is way more than January 6. It’s not a great way to go out.”

“I’m very proud of his legacy. It bothers me to no end that people associated with him are having a hard time now.”

A neutral broker?

Friedman, 62, grew up in North Woodmere, New York. His father, Morris Friedman, was a prominent Conservative rabbi who, in his telling, “marched in the civil rights movement, convened prayer vigils to mourn the assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, and, in the 1970s, often handcuffed himself to the Soviet mission to protest the Kremlin’s refusal to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate.”

The younger Friedman became a lawyer, representing Trump as a partner at the firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman. The same improvisational and pugnacious style that would mark Trump’s presidency was apparent to his legal team. “I can tell you he’s not scripted,” Friedman recalled, “as a lawyer when I used to put him on the witness stand, I can tell you my own frustration with getting him to stick to a script… He will say what he wants to say, when he wants to say it.”

Friedman does not remember any extensive conversations with his client about politics or Israel, but there was one encounter between the two that left its mark  on the future president.

In the mid-2000s, while the Second Intifada was still raging in Israel, Friedman and Trump were sitting in a conference room waiting for a meeting to start. Friedman pulled out blueprints for a 500-square-meter (5,380-square-foot) apartment he was building in Jerusalem. Trump asked how much the project cost, and when he heard, responded, “Wow, that’s a lot of money for Jerusalem… You can get a place in East Hampton, go there for weekends. Six thousand miles away, Jerusalem is not known for being a resort.”

The scene of a suicide bombing on September 9, 2003, after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of Cafe Hillel coffee shop in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Flash 90)

Friedman explained to the real estate mogul why he had bought the apartment and what it meant to him.

In 2003, Friedman had been in Israel for the wedding of his cousin Chanan Sand to Nava Applebaum. The night before the wedding, the bride and her father David, a pioneer of emergency medicine in Israel, went to Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem for a father-daughter chat. A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up just as the Applebaums were walking into the coffee shop, killing them and five others.

As a kohen, or a member of the Jewish priestly class, Friedman could not attend the funeral, so he went for a walk in Jerusalem and stopped at a construction site that piqued his interest.

“This was just a bunch of cinderblocks with a sign from the contractor. I called the guy and said come meet me over here. And we needed some ropes and ladders to get to this spot, I wanted to see what the view is like. I said, ‘I’ll take the whole floor.’ And he said, ‘Come on, we’re in the middle of an intifada’… I said, well, no one else wants to buy anything right now, and this is my own personal way to make sense of what just happened with the suicide bombing.”

“At least I can, in my own small personal way, put my money where my mouth is and show that Jewish people are not going to be bombed out of Jerusalem. And I told this to Donald at the time. I think he took notice. That was the conversation that I think spoke to him, because then he realized that this was much more than a real estate investment.”

It wasn’t a bad investment, though, as housing prices since then have nearly tripled.

Friedman joined Trump’s presidential campaign in April 2016, the same month Trump declared himself the “presumptive nominee” after sweeping five northeastern states in one day of primaries. Along with Greenblatt, another Orthodox Jew who was then chief legal officer and executive vice president at the Trump Organization, Friedman co-headed Trump’s Israel Advisory Committee.

There was some hand-wringing about Trump’s pro-Israel bona fides at the time. In February 2016, he promised to be a “neutral” broker in Israeli-Palestinian talks, indicating to some observers that he would break with previous bipartisan support for Israel.

But Friedman had no doubt that Trump intended to support Israel. The candidate asked Friedman and Greenblatt to come up with specific policies.

“He gave us a pretty wide berth then, and he did after he was elected as well,” Friedman recalled. “He wanted to be pro-Israel, he wanted to be meaningfully more pro-Israel than his predecessors… And I think he needed our help to define and create an overall approach that was consistent with his desire to support Israel.”

US Ambassador to David Friedman (L) speaks with White House Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt during the opening of an ancient road at the City of David archaeological and tourist site in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem on June 30, 2019.(Tsafrir Abayov/AFP)

Friedman and Greenblatt wrote the 2016 GOP platform plank on Israel, which made no mention of a two-state solution while advocating for “policies that reflect Americans’ strong desire for a relationship with no daylight between America and Israel.” It went on, “We recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state and call for the American embassy to be moved there in fulfillment of US law.”

Like most pundits, Friedman expected Trump to lose to Hillary Clinton on Election Day. “We woke up in the morning, and I said to my wife, ‘What a shame this has to come to an end. This was so much fun.'”

He decided to head over to Trump campaign headquarters to show his support, and while he was there it became increasingly clear that Trump was going to win.

“I went to see him the next day,” Friedman remembers. “I’m sure he got less sleep than me. I saw him at his office the next morning at 8 a.m., to congratulate him, and to remind him that we had a conversation about me being the ambassador. And I hoped he would take that to heart.”

The president-elect kept his word, taking the rare step of announcing his pick for ambassador to Israel before he assumed office. As with most everything else regarding Trump’s campaign and ascension to power, there was no shortage of controversy.

Friedman’s nomination was called “dangerous” and “a mistake” by Daniel Kurtzer, an ambassador to Israel for George W. Bush, in a New York Times op-ed. A total of five former US envoys called him “unqualified for the position.” During his confirmation hearing in February 2017, he was asked about an article he wrote the year before, in which he condemned “Obama’s anti-Semitism” and said that the dovish pro-Israel lobby J Street “are far worse than kapos,” referring to Jews who aided Nazis during the Holocaust.

David Friedman, US 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)

Friedman apologized for the statements during the hearing. Today, Friedman still regrets his “poor choice of words,” but nothing more. “My policy differences with J Street couldn’t be more stark,” he declared.

The Senate approved him 52-46; New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin were the only Democrats to support him.

The lack of bipartisan support left him with a sense of profound disappointment, even bitterness, one that he seems to carry with him to this day. His predecessors, he said, had received bipartisan backing from the Senate.

“When I was selected, none of that courtesy was extended by the Democrats towards me,” he said.

‘Complete disagreement’

Despite the pro-settlement Friedman helping Trump shape his Israel policy, it was clear from early on that the president was also listening to other voices. During Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington in February 2017, Trump caught his visitor off-guard, telling him in front of reporters that “both sides will have to make compromises,” and that he wanted Israel to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.”

US President Donald Trump, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/SAUL LOEB)

Friedman says the claims of tensions between Trump and Netanyahu were the result of people who “tried to insinuate themselves into this, and to offer the president their views.”

That included his boss at the time, then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Friedman said there was “complete disagreement” between him and Tillerson.

“He was against Jerusalem, the embassy, he subscribed to the view that settlements violated international law. I think he thought that the administration’s policies were not sufficiently evenhanded with regard to the Palestinians. I think he had a very traditional view of Israel, hard to differentiate from the Obama administration.”

Tillerson and defense secretary James Mattis were against “phase one,” said Friedman, the step of simply recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “They just didn’t see the point.”

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens as US President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Dec. 20, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Friedman describes a critical two-hour November 2017 meeting during which the two ideological camps within the administration presented to Trump their arguments on moving the embassy. In addition to the president, vice president Mike Pence, national security advisor H.R. McMaster, chief of staff John Kelly, UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Tillerson, Mattis, and Friedman were in the room.

“It was a pretty heated debate. Tillerson was primarily the opponent, Mattis was generally with Tillerson. I was the primary speaker for the pro move.”

Friedman told Trump and his senior advisers that moving the embassy was “where the rubber hit the road” on his entire foreign policy. Many presidential candidates had promised to move the embassy, but once in office, all had signed waivers every six months to keep it in Tel Aviv, on the advice that moving it would spark a major backlash that would pose a security threat.

“This was where we would see whether Trump was a new type of leader who kept his promises, who didn’t flinch from his enemies, who was willing to think outside the box, was willing to consider observing the will of the American people whose leaders had passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act 22 years earlier by an overwhelming bipartisan majority,” he said. “So this was really where the president was going to take a stand and say… ‘I’m not going to let some kind of atmospheric hypothetical threats from a bunch of rogue players influence American foreign policy.'”

Friedman also told Trump that he thought the move would resonate throughout the world with American adversaries, especially Iran, North Korea, and China.

“I think David’s right,” Trump concluded, in Friedman’s telling. “Of course I need to do this. I made a promise, it’s US law.”

Trump gave a speech on December 6, 2017, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Two months later, he announced that the US would be moving its embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018, to coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary.

The administration did not expect any violence in the wake of the moves. They regularly checked in with their embassies across the region. “We prepared for the worst but we didn’t see it all. And we were right.”

While there were large protests outside embassies around the world, none of them snowballed into any major threat.

In Gaza, though, a series of violent border demonstrations on the Israel-Gaza border that began in March reached their apogee on May 14, 2018. Over 60 Palestinians were killed, many of them purportedly members of the Hamas terror group, and thousands more wounded by live fire, rubber bullets and tear gas.

A Palestinian woman holding her national flag looks at clashes with Israeli forces near the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel east of Gaza City on May 14, 2018 (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

In the international media, the embassy opening ceremony was juxtaposed with the deadly violence on the Gaza border, giving Israel a black eye.

CNN shows the US embassy opening in Jerusalem on a split screen with violence on the Gaza border, May 14, 2018 (Screenshot)

Israeli officials believed the protests, which continued sporadically for months, had nothing to do with Trump’s Jerusalem announcements, but instead were the product of the failed reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza under the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Friedman argues that Muslims were largely apathetic about Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital. “If you go to the Muslim world, yes the Muslim world cares a lot about Al-Aqsa, but as a religious site, not as a political capital.”

Protesters shout “God is Great” during a rally against the US plan to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, at Monas, the national monument, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on May 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

Most Arabs in Jerusalem, Friedman claims, do not want to see the city divided, because they work in West Jerusalem. It was the Palestinian leadership who made Jerusalem into an issue, he said. “But what I had been seeing for years was that this just was not filtering down to the people of any of the Arab nations.”

In fact, a survey by the Palestine Center for Public Opinion has consistently found that 70 percent or more of East Jerusalem Palestinians want to be part of a Palestinian state. In 2020, more respondents said they would want to be Jordanian than part of Israel.

The survey of 650 East Jerusalem residents, published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, found that two-thirds were in favor of a united Jerusalem, as the capital of Palestine.

‘There was no way the Palestinians would accept it’

In May 2017, Trump visited Israel and also traveled to Bethlehem to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

According to Friedman, the meeting got off to a bad start when Trump realized his ambassador to Israel was not there because the PA had rejected a request to have him attend.

US policy until then had dictated that the US Consul to Jerusalem, who serves as the US representative to the Palestinians, attend such meetings. But according to Friedman, Abbas’s refusal to allow the ambassador to attend the meeting set Trump off.

The first thing Trump said when he arrived was “Where’s David?,” Friedman said he was told.

“He learned that Abbas had insisted that I not come because as the US ambassador to Israel I had no role to play being in that room. And I think that got him aggravated,” he said.

“Trump’s not a politician, he doesn’t understand the boxes that people fit into in government. And his perspective was — I’m in Israel, I’m an ambassador to Israel, but I’m also in his view a pretty talented guy, and he thought that the Palestinian conflict was something that I could be helpful on and he wanted me to be engaged.”

Three months later, after Trump insisted on the matter, Friedman did attend a meeting with Palestinian negotiators alongside Greenblatt and US consul general Donald Blome. The meeting, on restarting peace talks, was held in Jerusalem because Palestinians refused to host Friedman in Ramallah, according to reports at the time.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) speaks while US President Donald Trump listens before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

After Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, the Palestinians cut off contacts with the administration, but Friedman, Greenblatt and Jared Kushner still pushed ahead with a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“It really took form with efforts by Jared, Jason and me,” Friedman explained. “And [Greenblatt’s replacement] Avi [Berkowitz] came in later. And over time we brought in Haley and [secretary of state Mike] Pompeo. And then the president.”

A guiding principle as the plan came together was to treat Israel’s security needs as a primary concern, which Friedman said went beyond security guarantees.

“Meaning not to just accept as articulated every security point that Israel has, but to understand that Israel ultimately is responsible for their own security, and if they don’t think that this plan will protect them from a security perspective, then it would be dead on arrival, justifiably so,” Friedman said.

“We started with recognizing Israel’s security needs and not attempting to negotiate for security. Because to us it wasn’t a deal point. It was life and death. It was just something that had to be as a starting point,” he said.

Once the Israelis saw that the US took their security needs seriously, said Friedman, other discussions — such as borders — were easier. And without any Palestinian input, the US and Israel were the only ones negotiating over the plan’s contents.

US President Donald Trump announces that Sudan will normalize relations with Israel at the White House in Washington, DC, on October 23, 2020. – “Sudan and Israel have agreed to the normalization of relations — another major step toward building peace in the Middle East with another nation joining the Abraham Accords,” Trump said. (Photo by Alex Edelman / AFP)

After several delays, Washington unveiled the “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People” plan in two stages — the economic portion in June 2019, and the political section during a White House ceremony in January 2020.

Despite Trump insisting that the deal was a “win-win,” and “a historic opportunity for the Palestinians” that Abbas should seize, Friedman said the administration had absolutely no expectations that the Palestinians, who were not represented at the unveiling ceremony, would accept the plan. Ramallah had consistently rejected the plan before it came out, with Abbas calling it “the slap of the century.”

“The Palestinians had worked themselves up into such a frenzy beforehand that there was no way they were going to accept it, because they rejected it over and over and over again without having seen it,” said Friedman. “So no, there was no way the Palestinians were going to accept it…. That didn’t mean that we weren’t going to put something out and let it start to socialize and people start to look at it.”

The total lack of Palestinian buy-in was not a reason to suspend the release of the plan, argued Friedman. “There is a lot of complexity to this, where it starts in my view is having a serious conversation, whether the Palestinians join or not, about what are reasonable expectations for a solution to the conflict.”

The plan left all Israeli settlements and outposts in the West Bank intact via a connected network of enclaves. In return, the Palestinians were to be granted massive chunks of land in Israel’s south and possibly some Arab Israeli cities north of the West Bank.

Friedman, who has made no secret of his financial support for the settlements, maintains that the idea of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with minor land swaps should not be a starting point.

“That is absolutely not a consensus view. It may be a consensus view among left-wing pundits, maybe a consensus view inside the State Department. But it is not a consensus view in Israel for sure,” he said.

Israeli people care about sites of national significance over the Green Line, and would never agree to relinquish them, he averred.

Surveys have consistently shown the nation split on the issue. A poll released by the Israel Democracy Institute in July showed that 25% of Israeli oppose annexing any of the West Bank and 24.5% support annexing the whole West Bank. The most popular answer, with 28.5%, was “I don’t know.”

Inexperience as an asset

While the peace plan is mostly regarded as a bust, the place where the administration did have an historic impact was on helping reposition Israel’s place in the Middle East. The Trump administration brokered historic normalization deals in which Israel forged ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the so-called Abraham Accords in September 2020. It has also negotiated deals for Morocco to resume ties with Israel and for Sudan to negotiate normalizing relations.

From the administration’s first day, said Friedman, it recognized the opportunity to foster normalization agreements between Israel and Arab nations whose interests aligned.

“The first foreign trip, the first stop was Saudi Arabia, basically making the anti-Obama speech,” said Friedman, contrasting the May 2017 Riyadh Summit with Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo in which he attempted to reset relations with the Muslim world. “Not only am I not going to apologize to you for anything America has done, but I’m looking to all of you — not me, you — are the first line of defense in countering radical Islamic terrorism.”

“We thought from the beginning that it resonated, that it was time for a lot of these nations to take a stand against terrorism and to see that Israel was not the problem but part of the solution.”

Friedman said that Trump presented Arab allies with a new approach, though it took putting West Bank annexation on the table, and then offering to take it off, to get the ball rolling for the UAE. Doing so “created a dynamic where they could normalize with Israel under circumstances where they were not abandoning the Palestinian cause.”

The UAE claims that it signed the agreement in order to stop Netanyahu’s controversial plan to extend Israeli sovereignty to large parts of the West Bank, though the Palestinians have still pilloried it and others that have normalized with Israel as traitors to the cause.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (left) presents a Torah scroll to Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, while visiting the Gulf state in early September, 2020. (Twitter/Avi Berkowitz)

Friedman admits that the Trump team was inexperienced in negotiating diplomatic agreements, though he heaps praise on Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a key architect of the deals, whom he calls “a brilliant guy.”

“We tried to use that inexperience as an asset by challenging conventional wisdom at every path. What Jared is able to do, he comes from years of being in business, sort of like me, we’re able to understand what do people want, what do they need, what can they live with publicly, what can they live with privately, how do you develop trust, how do you create something which is a win-win,” he said. “I’m convinced the only way to do that in this case was to show up with a clean slate. Because if you were in any way burdened by past practices, you were going to get stuck in the mud with all those practices because they weren’t going to work and they never had worked.”

He says that the Emiratis also saw cozying up to Israel as a way to get closer with the US, the value of which they only realized after seeing how the Trump administration feted Israel.

“What we demonstrated by being so pro-Israel is that we can be a good friend to an ally that needs our help. And I think the Emiratis, these are extremely smart people, they’re very creative — some people call them the Israel of the Arab world because they tend to think out of the box as well — I think they said, ‘Look, we want the same thing. We see the relationship between the US and Israel, we’d like to get in on that… We want to be a trusted ally of the United States because we see what that means on the ground, what that type of relationship can bring.”

In Friedman’s telling, leaders of Gulf states held Trump in high regard, viewing him as “refreshingly candid, courageous, willing to take a stand, willing to do what’s right, not getting mired in groupthink, or political correctness.”

Learning chess

Friedman says he does not know what Trump’s plans for the future are, and his own are still vague.

He does know that he wants to remain “relevant in the US-Israel relationship.”

“It’s a huge fall-off when you can call the president and get him on the phone on the first try. There’s no replacing that. I’ll never be that relevant again,” he said.

He does know that he will write a book, and, primarily for family reasons, will split his time between Jerusalem, New York, and Florida.

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)

Friedman’s major mistake over the past few years, in his own reckoning, was his “kapos” reference. “You can be direct, you can be blunt, you can be as strong an advocate as you want to be, but never make another Holocaust analogy.” He is sure he never made another similar mistake during his tenure.

He did learn to better anticipate the reactions to announcements and policies, gaming out possible outcomes in his head. “It’s a game of chess. I learned how to play it better over time.”

As he prepares for the next phase in his life, Friedman continues to exude satisfaction in what the Trump administration achieved in the Middle East. Netanyahu agrees, saying during a January 18 farewell ceremony, “There was never a better ambassador than David Friedman in establishing the deep ties between Israel and the US, in correcting the diplomatic injustices that were created over the years in global diplomacy regarding Israel.”

Friedman said he spoke to Trump recently, and found the former US president “still upset about the election and also upset about the violence” on January 6.

“I said, ‘Look, you did more in four years for America than most presidents have done in eight, if at all. You have a great legacy that will eventually come to the surface. You’re no less than popular coming out of office than George H.W. Bush… Just get through the next few months,'” he recalled saying.

“I think that over time, once we get past the immediacy of the moment, once the quasi-socialist agenda fails, and it will, I think that people will look at president Trump as a fierce fighter for the American worker, someone who put America back to work,” he said. “Somebody who put American foreign policy on the right track, standing unequivocally with allies, and standing up to our challenges.”

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