On March 23, 2017, David Friedman was confirmed as US ambassador to Israel. His confirmation hearing was far from staid. Several protesters interrupted the proceedings to highlight his extreme anti-Palestinian views.
More unexpectedly, at one point during the hearing, Republican senator and Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker expressed amazement that Friedman was willing to “recant every strongly held belief that [he’d] expressed, almost,” and asked why Friedman was willing to dispose of these beliefs. Friedman responded that “the opportunity to serve [his] country as Israel’s ambassador would be the fulfillment of a life’s work.”
Perhaps we should be heartened that Friedman is willing to back down from his past far-right stances on Palestine. But if one surveys the record carefully, it’s clear that much of his life’s work has actually been in service of those supposedly recanted beliefs. Friedman’s past writing makes it apparent that he is concerned chiefly with promoting Israeli colonization, including the expropriation of Palestinian land and the expansion of settlements — a cause for which he has raised millions of dollars, with blatant disregard for international law and the wellbeing of Palestinians.
Before Friedman took his position as US ambassador, he served as president of American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva, a nonprofit organization that raises money for the Beit El settlement in the occupied West Bank. One of the founders of the settlement, Hagi Ben Artzi, has referred to the right of Palestinian-Israeli citizens to vote in national elections as a “mistake.” Such extremist views are not uncommon in the Beit El settlement.
The organization’s money supports a yeshiva, a Jewish school, that publishes a news site, Arutz Sheva, to which Friedman contributed sixteen op-eds. While one line from his most recent column has received significant media attention — he claimed supporters of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street “are far worse than kapos, Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps” — little reporting (with a few exceptions) has been done on these writings, which date as far back as July 2015.
The columns deserve closer scrutiny, as they provide a look into the mind of a man who now holds considerable sway in shaping US-Israeli policy.
In his columns, Friedman opines on a range of then-current events, including the Iran deal (“The deal will cause Iran to become a nuclear power” in only a few years and “will spawn a nuclear arms race in the Middle East”), the motive of Palestinian stabbings (“the Arab grievance is, at most, political. It is not existential”), and a total Muslim ban (it “would yield uncertain benefits and may be unconstitutional,” but “Muslim immigrants … should be required … to consent to complete transparency with respect to all internet and telecommunication activity”).
In one column, Friedman observes that American presidential support for Israel is often unpredictable. For instance, some previous US presidents, who he insinuates were anti-semites, were often better for Israel than expected. Of Richard Nixon, unquestionably an anti-semite, Friedman blithely notes that he “authoriz[ed] the largest airlift of weapons and military supplies in the history of Middle Eastern warfare” and “is credited by many in the Israeli Government with being Israel’s greatest friend.”
With Friedman (along with Jared Kushner) at the helm, this is a dynamic that the Trump White House has replicated. Sebastian Gorka was nearly removed from the White House, apparently because he backed an anti-semitic militia and has other ties to a Nazi group. (As a notable aside, Gorka’s mother worked with Holocaust-denier David Irving on translations for his book.) Several other members of the administration, including Stephen Bannon, Sean Spicer, and Donald Trump have made comments that veered dangerously close to outright anti-semitism as well.
Friedman has demonstrated his willingness to partner with anti-semites to promote Israeli colonization. In doing so, Friedman prioritizes the state of Israel over the Jewish people.
“Some presidents [like Nixon],” Friedman writes, “looked bad but ended up good” while others like Obama “looked bad and [were] bad.” He continues, “No president has been as openly hostile to Israel as Obama.” He points to the Iran nuclear deal as evidence. To bolster this claim, Friedman adds, “Despite Obama, Israel is at the apex of its military strength, technological prowess and economic vitality.” (He also accused Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism” in a separate op-ed, only to drop the charge after being questioned by Senator Cory Booker during his confirmation hearing.)
Of course, under Obama, Israel has received the largest foreign military aid package in American history: $38 billion over ten years. The Obama administration also allowed Israel to embark on a spree of illegal settlement construction that matched, if not outpaced, that under Bush. And at the end of his tenure, President Obama let through one purely symbolic UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israel — far fewer than a number of pro-Israel Republican administrations.
In another column, Friedman encourages settlement expansion. “As a general rule, we should expand a community in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] where the land is legally available and a residential or commercial need is present,” he writes. Yet, as Friedman well knows, all Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are illegal under international law, as the International Court of Justice ruled in 2004.
Several of Friedman’s public statements stood in stark contrast to the points he made at his confirmation hearing.
Friedman made a similar about-face on the two-state solution. In one op-ed from February 2016, he describes it is a “non-existent ‘solution’” to a “non-existent problem.” In effect, Friedman supports a Jewish supremacist one-state solution. At his confirmation hearing, however, the two-state solution was the “best possibility for peace in the region” and the “most ideal” option.
Friedman also wrote a column stating that even if Palestinians renounced violence, he would be unwilling to “cede them” West Bank settlements; in other words, Friedman is concerned primarily with gobbling up land, not a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Yet at his hearing, he said he would support a potential peace deal that transferred the Beit El settlement —the settlement for which Friedman has raised millions of dollars — to Palestinian control.
But perhaps Friedman’s most pertinent and revealing column is the one in which he clearly lays out his approach to negotiations in the Middle East.
“While a student of American and Israeli foreign policy, I am no expert,” he writes. Similar to his boss, however, Friedman contends that he is “an expert in negotiations.”
Commenting with disgust on the ongoing Iran nuclear deal negotiations, Friedman likens international diplomacy in the Middle East to bargaining in a souq, or Middle Eastern market. The comparison is telling. He describes the “overriding rule” of these types of negotiations as “caveat emptor,” or “buyer beware.” Friedman’s description invokes the old stereotype of the shifty Arab trying to swindle you out of a few bucks at the market. He expects dishonesty, chicanery, and deceit from these talks. He counsels American diplomats to respond in kind and offers four basic rules of negotiation: walk away, do not accept insulting behavior, be ambivalent, and make no gratuitous concessions.
He advises negotiators to avoid “try[ing] to appear reasonable by taking options (like a military attack) off the table.” “There is nothing worse than to project weakness,” he explains. And he cautions against forthrightness.
Friedman claimed that he no longer holds such abhorrent beliefs during his confirmation hearings. Why not, if ultimately as ambassador he can advance his extremist agenda? Through these columns, Friedman shows that he is coming to the table not as a disinterested arbiter, moderating and negotiating in good faith. Instead, Friedman aims to achieve the best deal possible for Israelis without what he terms “gratuitous concessions” — which might better be understood as what international law demands.
The contrast between Friedman’s public statements and his past writings should raise serious questions about his honesty, to say nothing of his far-right views about Israel and Palestine. Despite Friedman’s rhetorical attempts to moderate his views, these columns demonstrate careful consideration of the conflict and a strong ideological commitment to maintaining the Israeli settler-colonial state and deepening its brutality. A healthy dose of skepticism that he would or could do away with that commitment is more than merited.
Given that these columns were penned less than two years ago, it’s tough to believe that someone who has so totally dedicated their life to a cause would have a complete overturning of their beliefs.