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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

The most undiplomatic of diplomats is Donald Trump’s man in Middle East

Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel broke the mold of non-partisan predecessors by outraging Palestinians with comments that the Jewish state has a right to annex some areas of the West Bank.

world Updated: Aug 30, 2019 10:52 IST
Ivan Levingston and David Wainer
Ivan Levingston and David Wainer
Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel broke the mold of non-partisan predecessors.
Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel broke the mold of non-partisan predecessors.(Reuters Photo)

As the top American envoy to one of the world’s most volatile regions, David Friedman is anything but diplomatic.

Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel broke the mold of non-partisan predecessors by outraging Palestinians with comments that the Jewish state has a right to annex some areas of the West Bank.

In June, he inaugurated an archaeological dig under Palestinian homes at an event also attended by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, one of the largest donors to the Trump campaign. When Israel barred two Democratic congresswomen from visiting this month, Friedman backed the decision.

Now the scope of Friedman’s influence is about to become apparent as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads into the final days of campaigning before Sept. 17 elections and the U.S. gears up to unveil the political part of the White House’s latest Mideast peace plan.

Netanyahu has made territorial claims by Jewish settlers – a cause celebre for the right – a pillar of his bid to stay in power after he was unable to form a government following a vote in April. While Friedman has made no declaration of public support, his access to power has helped shift American-Israel policy toward Netanyahu.

“Often the U.S. ambassador is viewed as someone who is trying to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer,” said David Makovsky, director of the project on Middle East peace at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I don’t think he sees this at all as part of his portfolio.”

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Mired in a corruption scandal, Netanyahu is trying to lure voters by portraying himself as a reliable leader backed by powerful American allies. Trump is on a giant poster shaking hands with him. In another ad, the U.S. president is ringing a mobile phone. The tagline is: “Who do you prefer to answer this call?” Polls show his party is neck and neck with its biggest rival.

Friedman, 61, the son of a rabbi, fits into that narrative. He previously led the pro-settler American Friends of the Bet El Yeshiva Center.

He lobbied to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018, according to Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. since 2013. That changed decades of American policy and drew the ire of the Palestinians, who said it broke international law and ended the U.S.’s ability to serve as a fair broker in peace negotiations.

“Usually an ambassador would probably be two or three phone calls away from the president, but now it’s different,” said Dermer. “They have a personal relationship. So that makes him very effective.”

During the campaign for the previous election, Trump gave Netanyahu a political gift by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights. Trump said Friedman reacted to the decision “like a wonderful, beautiful baby.”

Israel is also closer to annexing West Bank settlements, which have been repeatedly ruled illegal by the United Nations and supported by Friedman. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, called Friedman a “son of a dog” in a speech last March.

Friedman declined to comment for this story, a spokeswoman for the embassy in Jerusalem said.

His rise to one of the most sensitive diplomatic posts took an atypical path. He grew up in a conservative Jewish home in Long Island, where his father, Rabbi Morris Friedman, welcomed Ronald Reagan before his 1984 re-election.

Friedman remains driven by faith and a passion for Jewish history, according to long-time friend and study partner Rabbi Zalman Wolowik. When Wolowik’s 9-year old son died in March 2009, Friedman visited every day for the week-long mourning ritual known as “shiva.”

“There’s nothing you can find on the Friedmans,” Wolowik said. “They’re so clean and pure. I just look at a man who’s standing up for his priorities.”

A different shiva visit helped cement Friedman’s bond with Trump, when the future president paid a condolence call in 2005 after Friedman’s father died. In his role as a top New York bankruptcy lawyer, he worked with Trump on cases related to his Atlantic City properties.

Their closeness led to Friedman’s appointment as co-chair of the Trump campaign’s Israel advisory committee, which advocated the embassy move to Jerusalem. He then became ambassador in March 2017, sparking opposition from liberal pro-Israel group J Street for what it said were his extreme views.

The White House is now preparing to unveil the political part of its Middle East peace plan, what it calls the “deal of the century.” It’s led by the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and started with an economic summit in Bahrain in June. Palestinian officials boycotted the event.

Friedman has dropped hints of how he sees a solution. In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference this year, he said now was the time to lock in guarantees that Israel can maintain security control of the West Bank. At a celebration for the anniversary of the Jerusalem embassy move, Friedman said Israel was “on the side of God.”

He makes Netanyahu “seem like a leftist,” said Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and chief negotiator with Israel.

While Israeli-Palestinian relations are currently higher on the White House’s agenda thanks to the push by Kushner, eventually his focus will be on Trump’s reelection campaign.

That would leave Friedman with more sway, according to Ilan Goldenberg, who heads the Mideast program at the Center for a New American Security and was involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the Barack Obama administration.

“He will be left running U.S. policy with everyone else distracted,” he said.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)