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Critics warn US could adopt ‘pro-settler agenda’

Nomination of David Friedman as next US ambassador to Israel could prove final nail in coffin of Palestinian Authority

Al-Jazeera – 19 December 2016

Donald Trump’s nomination of David Friedman as the United States ambassador to Israel provoked widespread consternation over the weekend, amid heightened speculation that the president-elect’s selection would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In a statement accepting the nomination, 57-year-old Friedman welcomed the chance to work “from the US Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem”. That would signal US recognition of Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem, long viewed as the only feasible capital of a future Palestinian state.

But Friedman’s appointment – if confirmed by the Senate – would mean more than a change of address for the US embassy and a further deterioration in the prospects for Palestinian statehood.

“It ends any illusion of there being a diplomatic process,” Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Al Jazeera. “The next US administration isn’t just going to have a pro-Israel agenda like its predecessors. It’s going to have a pro-settler agenda.”

That, say analysts, could mark a seismic shift in the “special relationship” between the US and Israel. The likely shockwaves could disrupt business as usual in Washington, Europe and Israel itself – and an early casualty might be the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas.

Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who has been close to Trump for the past 15 years, is a high-profile ally of Israel’s hardline settler movement. He is known to favour annexing large parts of the West Bank, if not all of it.

That puts him – at least on paper – to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. In fact, Friedman is ideologically closer to Jewish Home, the far-right settler party led by Netanyahu’s political rival, Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett.

Adviser has Trump’s ear

Traditionally, ambassadors do not make policy. But Friedman had Trump’s ear as an adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the course of the presidential election campaign. It is hard not to interpret his nomination as a declaration of intent by a Trump White House.

In recent months Friedman has left few doubts about where he – and Trump – stand on the major issues.

His personal support for the settlers is no secret. He is the president of American Friends of Beit El, which helps finance an extremist settlement near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. He also contributes opinion articles to Arutz Sheva, the settlers’ main media outlet.

In September, Friedman was one of the few taking Netanyahu’s side after the prime minster equated the creation of a Palestinian state with the “ethnic cleansing of Jews” – the removal of settlers living in the occupied territories in violation of international law. Netanyahu, he said, had made “exactly the right point”.

Earlier, in the summer, Friedman said a Trump administration would put zero pressure on Israel to create a Palestinian state. “If the Israelis don’t want to do it, so [Trump] doesn’t think they should do it. It is their choice,” he told the Haaretz newspaper.

But the effect of Friedman as ambassador could be more significant than just ending the pretence of Washington as an honest broker, according to Israeli analyst Jeff Halper. It would herald the moment the US withdraws involvement.

Regarding annexation of parts, or even all, of the West Bank, Friedman has said Trump “wouldn’t have any problem with that at all”.

“This is when the US says, ‘We are out of the picture. Let the parties work it out themselves’,” Halper told Al Jazeera. “That gives Israel the green light to start annexing the West Bank. Israel does it with a wink.”

Attack on liberal Jews

Friedman’s influence is likely to prove especially polarising among Jews in Israel and the US, said Yossi Alpher, who served as an adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“A clear majority of American Jews are liberal and will be very unhappy if the Trump administration is openly supportive of the settlers,” he told Al Jazeera. “That would drive a wedge among them.”

Tensions have been building in the organised American Jewish community since the presidency of George W Bush. Liberal lobby group J Street was created in 2007 specifically to challenge the dominance of the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobby in Congress and push for a two-state solution.

Friedman has launched attacks of unprecedented ferocity against the liberal Jewish community. He has described J Street as “worse than kapos” – Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in the death camps.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, called Friedman’s nomination “beyond the pale”, adding: “We’ll fight this with all we’ve got.”

Similarly, Americans for Peace Now denounced the nomination as “a destabilizing move, which only adds fuel to the Israeli-Palestinian fire”.

On the other side of the battle lines, Morton Klein, president of the hawkish Zionist Organisation of America, claimed Friedman had “the potential to be the greatest US ambassador to Israel ever”.

End to bipartisanship

Michel Warschawski, an Israeli analyst, said the polarisation of pro-Israel lobbies in the US would accelerate. “We have definitely reached the point now where the bipartisanship and unanimity of support for Israel in the Jewish community is coming to an end,” he told Al Jazeera.

In addition, said Alpher, that split could “widen the divide” on Israel in the Democratic and Republican parties. “Friedman does not look ready to send any messages of conciliation,” he said.

During the election campaign Friedman accused both President Obama and the State Department of being “anti-Semitic”. Any State Department officials who try to oppose Trump’s Middle East policy, he has said, will be told: “You know what, guys? You’re all fired!”

A statement Friedman co-authored in November with another Trump adviser, Jason Greenblatt, backed Netanyahu’s efforts to reverse one of Obama’s key foreign policy achievements – a nuclear deal signed with Iran last year.

The question is whether this assault on Obama’s legacy will turn support for Israel into an openly partisan issue in Washington for the first time.

It is similarly unclear how Europe will respond to a US change of tack in the Middle East. Tensions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among European Union member states can be expected to intensify under a Trump administration.

“Trump’s success is part of a broader trend being reflected in Europe,” said Alpher. “We could see three or four right-wing states breaking away and following the US in moving their embassies to Jerusalem.”

‘Path to lawlessness’

Predictably, the Palestinian leadership has responded with alarm to the news of Trump’s nominee and plans to relocate the US embassy.

Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), warned that Friedman would send “this region down the path of something that I call chaos, lawlessness and extremism”.

In this political climate, Abbas’ strategy of seeking legitimacy for Palestinian statehood through the United Nations appears futile, said Buttu.

In October, during a visit to Israel, Friedman told Trump supporters that there would be “no opportunity for mischief at the UN”. Trump’s ambassador to the UN would be “ordered” to veto any resolutions hostile to Israel.

“For years the Palestinian Authority has adopted a strategy of wait and see with successive [US] presidents, believing they were about to do something,” Buttu said.

“Even though the appointment of a pro-settler ambassador ends that illusion, my impression is that the PA is going to continue with its wait-and-see approach. Not only is the peace process discredited, but so is Mahmoud Abbas.”

PA collapse ‘on cards’

Halper said that Ambassador Friedman could prove to be the final nail in the PA’s coffin. “A collapse of the PA is on the cards,” he said. That would provide Israel with the pretext for annexing much of the West Bank.

Friedman could spell trouble too for Netanyahu as he tries to keep a semblance of control over an unruly right-wing cabinet, parts of which are chomping at the bit to oust him and get on with annexing the West Bank.

Chemi Shalev, a Haaretz columnist, observed that Friedman made Netanyahu look like a “left-wing defeatist … The last thing he needs is a US ambassador who supports his most feared rivals”.

A group that would be empowered by Friedman’s appointment, said Buttu, was the BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement.

“This is a gift to them,” she said. “Unlike Abbas who will do nothing, BDS activists will run with this, now that the futility of the current diplomatic efforts are exposed.”

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