Donald Trump rocketed into the White House on promises of radical change, and on one of the most important issues for American Jews—namely the U.S.-Israel relationship, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—he’s well on his way to delivering. Today, the transition team announced that David M. Friedman, an attorney who represented Trump’s interests during bankruptcy proceedings related to various Trump-branded Atlantic City enterprises, is the president-elect’s pick as ambassador to Israel. During the election, Friedman was one of the co-chairs of Trump’s Israel advisory committee. Along with Trump Organization general counsel Jason Greenblatt, Friedman was one of the co-authors of a hawkish statement on the candidate’s Israel-related policies released a few days before the election.
During a June interview with Tablet, Friedman said that he dedicates the majority of his non-professional time to Israel-related projects: he funds various education and first-responder-related philanthropies in the country, and said he owns property there as well. One of those projects is the chairmanship of American Friends of Bet-El, an organization that provides support for a Jewish settlement in the central Samaria region of the West Bank that is unlikely to remain under Israeli control in the event of a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. Friedman has been personally close with Trump for over 15 years, has no traditional diplomatic experience, and holds views on the peace process that are outside of the mainstream international and U.S. position. As he wrote in one of his regular columns for the pro-settlement website Arutz Sheva in August, “There has never been a ‘two-states solution’—only a ‘two-state narrative.’”
These aren’t the only reasons Friedman’s nomination is already proving controversial. In a different Arutz Sheva column, Friedman referred to supporters of the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group J Street as “far worse than kapos,” calling them “smug advocates of Israel’s destruction.” J Street released a blistering statement in response to the news, saying Friedman “has attacked fellow Jews and public figures with hateful accusations that are disqualifying for representing our country in any capacity” and “consistently aligned himself with some of the most irresponsible charges and conspiracy theories of the far-right, Islamophobic fringe in this country.” The group already circulating a petition in an effort to persuade senators to reject Friedman’s nomination as ambassador.
For J Street and other pro-peace advocacy groups, Friedman’s past statements might be less of a problem than what he could mean for the U.S.-Israel relationship in practicality. Although decisions on the U.S.’s Israel-related policy typically emanate from Foggy Bottom or the White House, a supporter of the settlement movement and skeptic of the two-state solution would seem especially unlikely to apply any serious or credible pressure on Israel if it authorizes additional construction over the Green Line, recognizes settlement outposts, or acts other in ways that could complicate future peace efforts. Friedman’s appointment could mean that Trump—who doesn’t have much of a record on Israeli-Palestinian matters, aside from vague suggestions that he’d take a more “neutral” approach to solving the conflict—believes the U.S.’s interests lie in tolerating or even encouraging activities Israeli in the West Bank that undermine the peace process. In contrast, the Obama administration saw settlement construction or changes in the West Bank’s status quo as a threat to the viability of a two-state solution and to U.S. diplomatic credibility more generally.
Friedman has a jaundiced view of the peace process at a time when the entire proposition of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian outcome is already especially vulnerable. Back in June, Tablet asked Friedman if he was concerned that in supporting Donald Trump he might be helping to elect the man who could bring an end to Bet El’s existence through negotiating a final peace agreement. This wasn’t an issue for Friedman: “I don’t have that concern because I just don’t think it’s a realistic outcome in the current environment.” That he’d agree to be Trump’s ambassador to Israel suggests he doesn’t think it’s a realistic outcome under the next presidential administration, either.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.