WASHINGTON — Sitting in a conference room together 13 years ago, David Friedman told his friend Donald Trump that he just purchased an apartment in Jerusalem.
Trump, the real estate tycoon, was immediately curious to know the particulars. “How big was it? How much did it cost?” Friedman recalled him asking, describing the conversation during an interview with The Times of Israel last month. When Friedman cited the price, Trump was surprised.
“That’s really a lot of money,” he responded, according to Friedman’s recollection. “For that kind of money, why wouldn’t you buy a place in East Hampton? Why do you have to go all the way to Israel for a second home?”
The Long Island native’s answer was probably one that the man soon to be president was not expecting. “The world has been fighting over every inch of Jerusalem for the past 3,000 years,” Friedman told Trump. “There’s nobody fighting over East Hampton.”
Trump’s eyes then “opened up,” Friedman said, “and that initiated a decade-plus conversation about Israel.”
Now, in 2016, that exchange seems to have been more fateful than it may have initially seemed to Friedman, who was announced on Thursday as President-elect Trump’s nominee to be the next US ambassador to Israel.
And the first move Friedman made in that official capacity was to indicate that Trump plans to follow through on his campaign pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, breaking decades of precedent under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and underlining an apparent inclination to do what other presidential candidates have promised but declined to deliver once they took office: recognize the holy city as Israel’s capital.
Official US policy has long been to insist that the status of Jerusalem can only be determined through a negotiated settlement between the parties, as both Israelis and Palestinians claim it as their capital.
In a statement Thursday, Friedman, a Hebrew-speaker, declared he was “deeply honored and humbled” that his friend of 15 years selected him to represent America to the Jewish state, and he also left the world with a zinger when he said he looked forward to doing his new job “from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
But Friedman’s declared appetite to move the embassy is not the only reason liberal Jewish organizations have responded to his nomination with something close to horror. The 57-year-old bankruptcy lawyer has also been an outspoken and active supporter of the settlement movement, and has argued that Israel doesn’t face a “demographic threat” to its Jewish character if it fails to separate from the Palestinians.
Friedman serves as president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, an organization that supports the large West Bank settlement near Ramallah, and over the last year, he has excoriated groups who express criticism of Israel’s settlement policy.
In June, Friedman accused J Street supporters of being “far worse than kapos” in a column for the right-wing, pro-settlement Israel National News website, using the term for Jews who aided Nazis during the Holocaust. Speaking before the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum earlier this month, he doubled down on his comparison.
Now that he is slated to become the United States’ top diplomat in Israel — so long as the US Senate confirms his appointment — he will assume one of the most delicate positions in American foreign policy, mediating the US relationship with a close ally in an increasingly unstable region, and after eight tumultuous years of ties between the administration of President Barack Obama and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Last November, a week before the election, Friedman spoke with The Times of Israel about what Trump’s policies and priorities toward the Jewish state would be if he won, providing a glimmer into what may lie ahead.
‘No daylight’ between the US and Israel
When it comes to the US-Israel relationship, Friedman insisted that Trump would represent a sharp break from his predecessor — including in that there would be “no daylight between Israel and America,” a phrase also used in the transition team’s announcement of his selection on Thursday, which indicates a policy of keeping differences out of the public sphere.
“Donald Trump wants to be as supportive of Israel as possible,” Friedman said. “He doesn’t view Israel as a client state that you just kind of issue directives to. He views Israel as a partner, one of America’s key partners in a global war against Islamic terrorism, so he wants Israel … to be as strong and secure as possible.”
Unlike Obama, who made Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank a fundamental issue of criticism throughout his presidency, Trump will not “put his finger on the scale or tell Israel what policies they should adopt,” Friedman said, adding that his new boss “doesn’t see Israel as in need of any particular correction at this point.”
That principle, he indicated, covers both how Trump will treat the settlement issue and the manner in which Israel seeks to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. The Trump administration will not “dictate to Israel where it can and cannot build” in the West Bank, according to Friedman.
Trump has not publicly stated a position on settlements or detailed what kind of a stance he would take. The most common view among Washington’s foreign policy community, and emphatically within the Obama administration, is that, to keep the two-state option alive and ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, the US should try to limit settlement activity to the principal blocs that Israel is expected to retain under any permanent accord.
For his part, Friedman said that a Trump administration “doesn’t see much opportunity for progress until the Palestinians renounce violence and accept Israel as a Jewish state. That’s really a prerequisite.”
“Strong vs. weak is less relevant to Trump than the ‘relative conduct of the parties'”
One criticism Friedman had of the current president was that Obama saw Israel as “strong” and the Palestinians as “weak,” and thus he believed it was up to the Israelis to take the risks necessary for peace. “Strong vs. weak is less relevant to Trump than the ‘relative conduct of the parties’,” Friedman said.
According to Friedman, Trump was influenced by seeing a video last spring of a stage production put on at a Hamas-affiliated school in Gaza. “Half the kids were dressed up as Israeli soldiers or traditional garb and the other half were dressed up as shahids, and the kids playing terrorists took their fake knives and stabbed all the Jews,” Friedman said of the film. “Fake blood poured on the stage, and the parents all applauded this. In a first grade class.”
Trump, he said, sees that kind of incitement as “unacceptable and an insoluble impediment to peace.”
But didn’t Trump say he wanted to be neutral?
In February 2016, then-Republican presidential hopeful Trump called Israeli-Palestinian peace “probably the toughest agreement of any kind to make,” but vowed to give it “one hell of a shot.”
He also pledged he would do that by being “sort of a neutral guy,” when pressed by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough over whether he ascribed fault to either side for failing to reach an accord. “A lot of people have gone down in flames trying to make that deal. So I don’t want to say whose fault is it,” he said. “I don’t think it helps.”
Trump took immediate heat for this promise, and seemed to indicate a walk-back during his speech at the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference and elsewhere, but he has not explicitly rescinded this posture.
Friedman argued, however, that his language has been misunderstood. “What he was really referring to was trying to sponsor negotiations that would take place without preconditions,” he said. “That was what he viewed as neutrality, and that’s frankly been the view of the Israeli government for some time.”
Friedman cited Obama’s first-term demand that Netanyahu place a moratorium on all West Bank settlement construction as a trust-building measure to be “an example of the absence of neutrality, but it’s in favor of the Palestinians against the Israelis.”
And what about that two-state solution?
As one of Trump’s top two Israel advisers at the time, along with Jason Dov Greenblatt, Friedman said the candidate had not yet decided exactly how he’d go about handling Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, but that he would be open to new ideas, including embracing avenues outside the two-state framework.
‘Trump will be guided by the Israelis view very much so, and will not be seeking to impose any particular path upon the Israeli government.’
Friedman stated that, in his discussions with Trump, “a two-state solution is not a priority. I don’t think he is wed to any particular outcome. A two-state solution is a way, but it’s not the only way.”
Unlike the last three presidents, who have tried to push both parties into negotiating a compromise, Trump will let Israel make its determinations without pressure from the US, said Friedman.
“A Trump administration will try to be helpful with the Israelis bringing stability to the region, to make it as quiet as possible, as peaceful as possible, and ultimately to come up with a long-term solution,” he said. “As far as what that solution is, Trump will be guided by the Israelis’ view, very much so, and will not be seeking to impose any particular path upon the Israeli government.”
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