US Ambassador to Israel: “Great Advantage” to Netanyahu

David Friedman is known for his support for the most extreme elements in Israel’s settler movement

The choice of US ambassador to Israel has never before incurred such scrutiny or provoked such controversy.

Usually, the appointment is approved by the Senate’s foreign relations committee by consensus. But David Friedman’s confirmation vote last Thursday split largely on partisan lines, with Republicans backing him and all but one Democrat opposing him.

Tens of thousands of liberal American Jews signed a petition opposing his nomination, and major Jewish organisations and hundreds of rabbis also objected.

But then, Donald Trump’s envoy to Israel is no ordinary ambassador.

Rather than climbing up through the diplomatic ranks learning the arts of statecraft, 57-year-old Friedman has been propelled overnight into one of the world’s most sensitive diplomatic posts.

No honest broker

An Orthodox Jew and the son of a New York rabbi, Friedman is a bankruptcy lawyer who has worked on Trump’s behalf for the past 15 years. He joined the presidential election campaign last year as Trump’s adviser on Israel.

But it is not Friedman’s lack of experience causing the greatest concern. It is his long history of support not only for the Israeli right but for some of the most extreme elements in Israel’s settler movement.

“This appointment should explode any remaining doubts among Palestinians and the international community that the US can be any kind of honest broker,” Nur Arafeh, an analyst with Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

She added: “It confirms that the Americans have no positive role to play in the struggle for self-determination or rights for the Palestinian people.”

Friedman has vehemently opposed a Palestinian state, breaking with long-standing US official policy. He boasted recently, Arafeh noted, that he had helped to erase any reference to the two-state solution from the Republican election platform. He has also backed the annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank by Israel. Such statements put him to the right of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Eyes and ears in region

A vote in the coming days by the full Senate to approve Friedman’s confirmation is considered a formality.

As ambassador, he may not be in charge of making policy, but he will be the administration’s eyes and ears in the region. His cables to the White House will frame official US perceptions of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and his recommendations are likely to shape policy.

That point was underscored by Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel. “Everything an ambassador says and does has an impact on policy,” he told the US Jewish daily The Forward.

Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli journalist and cofounder of the +972 website, said previous US ambassadors had collected and passed on data chiefly from human rights groups and the Israeli media. “If the new ambassador is hostile to human rights, the treatment of political prisoners and issues of free speech, that will make a real difference to the information arriving in Washington,” he told Al Jazeera.

Equally significantly, Friedman’s statements and actions – even small ones, given the highly volatile situation in the region – could have powerful reverberations.

Kurtzer was one of five former ambassadors who wrote to the Senate committee urging it to block Friedman’s appointment for his “extreme positions”, according to Haaretz.

Last week Dianne Feinstein, a senior Democratic Senator, warned in a commentary that Friedman’s “divisive rhetoric” and “dangerous positions … would undermine our national security by further inflaming tensions in the region”.

Pressure to move embassy

The first test will be where he decides to base himself after he arrives in the region. He already owns a home in Talbiyeh, a neighbourhood of Jerusalem from which Palestinians were expelled in 1948.

While the US embassy is in Tel Aviv, Friedman has fervently advocated for its relocation to Jerusalem – a move, said Arafeh, that would be seen as giving the US seal of approval to Israel’s declaration of all of Jerusalem, including the occupied East Jerusalem, as its “eternal, united capital”.

Palestinians expect East Jerusalem as the capital of any future state. Moving the embassy could trigger unrest, not just among Palestinians, but across the region.

Although Trump has lowered expectations of an imminent decision on the embassy, the issue appears still to be under consideration. Last weekend, a congressional delegation visited Israel to investigate how such a move might be made, the Jerusalem Post reported.

If the embassy stays in Tel Aviv, Friedman’s supporters believe he may still find a workaround, possibly by basing himself in the US consulate in Jerusalem.

Backing for Old City settlers

Friedman’s support for the settlements is not confined to words. He is an active fundraiser for, and donor to, some of the most extreme settler causes, including in East Jerusalem. As ambassador, Friedman will be expected to distance himself from such causes, but his sympathies may be harder to hide.

Last week, Haaretz revealed that he was a donor to the American branch of Ateret Cohanim, a far-right Israeli group that aggressively settles Jews in key locations in East Jerusalem, and especially around al-Aqsa, the most sensitive Islamic site in the region.

Ateret Cohanim barely conceals its aim to bring Jerusalem’s Old City and the mosque compound under Jewish control. Groups close to Ateret Cohanim want to destroy al-Aqsa and build a Jewish temple there.

To achieve its goals, the group has used subterfuge to buy dozens of homes in the Old City’s Muslim quarter and then settle them with Jewish religious extremists, often turning the buildings into yeshivas, or Jewish seminaries.

Laura Wharton, a Jerusalem councillor for the left-wing Meretz party, told Haaretz recently that Ateret Cohanim was “seeking to incite as much conflict as they can” in Jerusalem.

Belief in Biblical promise

The new ambassador also has strong ties to the wider settler movement in the West Bank. He is the president of American Friends of Beit El Institutions, which raises millions of dollars each year for the Beit El settlement, close to the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

Although all the settlements violate international law, Beit El has erected buildings on land unlawfully seized from Palestinians that violate Israeli law, too. One such building, a school, has a plaque bearing Friedman’s name.

According to the Israeli media, Friedman is drawn to this settlement in particular because of its huge symbolic significance to the settler movement. This is the place where, according to the Old Testament, God promised Jacob the Land of Israel. It is a site with the power to rally religious extremists to the more general settlement cause.

It is no coincidence that Beit El is home to the settlers’ main media outlet, Arutz Sheva, for which Friedman fundraises and where he is a columnist.

In addition, the settlement lies far from Israel’s recognised border, some 14km inside the West Bank. The consolidation of Beit El made possible by the donations secured by Friedman is seen by the settlers as a way to foil the creation of a Palestinian state.

Palestinians ‘won’t wait’

Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American analyst based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said, given this background, Friedman would find it difficult to fulfill his role as ambassador.

“The Palestinian leadership will meet him because they have to, but who else will be willing to engage with him?” he told Al Jazeera. “He will struggle to open up any other channels to Palestinians.”

A loss of faith in US influence, said Bahour, would create a vacuum. “That vacuum won’t remain. Palestinians are not going to sit around waiting for four years to pass. It will be a gift to all forms of Palestinian resistance, from BDS [the boycott movement] and civil society to Hamas.”

The split between Republicans and Democratic Senators over Friedman’s appointment also offered the first signs of a possible polarisation in what can be said about Israel, said Bashir Bashir, a researcher at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

“It creates more space for views that have been repressed or sidelined as not politically correct,” he told Al Jazeera. “It could pave the way for new political discourses.”

That might include greater exposure for arguments for a one-state solution and comparisons of Israeli rule with apartheid.

Opportunity for big changes

Moshe Ya’alon, the former Israeli defence minister, expressed fears about such a development last week on a visit to Washington. He warned that Israel was already “paying a price” for allying itself so closely with Trump’s team, and was at risk of being identified as an exclusively Republican cause. “Anti-Trump sentiments are becoming anti-Israel sentiments,” he said.

Sheizaf said Friedman’s influence was likely to contribute to Israel’s political system shifting further to the right. Netanyahu’s gradual entrenchment of Israeli military control over the occupied territories is under increasing challenge from settler leader Naftali Bennett, who is closer ideologically to Friedman. Bennett has pushed for bold new moves, such as formally annexing parts of the West Bank.

“Friedman strengthens those like Bennett who see this as an opportunity to make big changes,” Sheizaf told Al Jazeera.

But ultimately, Friedman’s effect would depend on where the Trump administration’s policy on Israel-Palestine settles, observed Sheizaf. In that regard, Trump could prefer traditional bilateral negotiations or opt to leave Israel to its own devices.

“It’s looking more likely the White House will prefer the second option, and in that sense, Friedman could be a great advantage to Netanyahu.”

• First appeared in Al Jazeera

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.