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A hardliner for Israel

Tania Krämer
December 16, 2016

President-elect Donald Trump has tipped attorney David Friedman to be his top diplomat in Israel. Many of his positions are contradictory to standing US policy. Tania Krämer reports from Jerusalem.

Israel US Wahl Trump
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Abayov

David Friedman was already introduced as a favorite for the post of US ambassador to Israel at a Republicans Abroad campaign event in Jerusalem this past October. The 57-year-old bankruptcy lawyer has worked with Donald Trump for years and advised him on all issues related to Israel. Now, two months later, the US president-elect has confirmed his choice. On Thursday, Trump said that Friedman "has been a longtime friend and trusted advisor to me." Adding, "his strong relationships in Israel will form the foundation of his diplomatic mission."

Friedman is considered to be a hardliner and an advocate of Israel's settlement policies in the occupied West Bank. All previous US administrations - both Republican and Democrat - have criticized the building of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as an impediment to the establishment to an independent Palestinian state. Friedman also has a different take on the two-state solution that has been the cornerstone of US foreign policy. Before the election, Friedman said that the US was not bound to the two-state solution and would not "push Israel to do something that it might not want to do."

Prior to the election, Friedman also penned an opinion piece in the "Jerusalem Post," a daily newspaper, writing, "under president Trump, Israel will feel no pressure to make self-defeating concessions, America and Israel will enjoy unprecedented military and strategic cooperation, and there will be no daylight between the two countries." Beyond being a prominent New York lawyer, Friedman, who speaks fluent Hebrew, is known for his work as the chairman of an American organization that supports the Jewish Beit El settlement near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank.

Congratulations from settlers' representatives

Settlers' representatives were among the first to extend their congratulations, although his nomination must be confirmed by the US Senate. The speaker of the Yesha Council, Oded Revivi, praised Friedman's deep connection with Israel and its people, also those who live in "Judea and Samaria." Judea and Samaria are biblical terms for what is today the West Bank. Thus far, the only Israeli politician to comment has been Tzipi Hotovely, who called Trump's pick "good news for Israel."

USA | David Friedman designierter Botschafter in Israel
David Friedman (below left) campaigned for US Republicans in IsraelImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Sultan

Observers in Israel pointed out that as ambassador, Friedman will be responsible for carrying out the policies of his boss, and that the incoming Trump administration has yet to make known its plans for the region. Liberal and progressive Jewish organizations in the United States voiced strong criticism over the nomination. For instance, the Jewish organization J Street called the appointment irresponsible, saying that it would harm America's reputation in the region and its credibility throughout the world. A few months ago, Friedman said that the organization's members were "far worse than the kapos," a reference to Jews assigned to supervise other prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.  

Moving the embassy to Jerusalem

Friedman himself has said that he intends "to work tirelessly to strengthen the unshakable bond" between Israel and the US and "advance the cause of peace in the region." Adding that he is looking forward to doing so "from the US Embassy in Israel's eternal capital, Jerusalem." His emphasis on the fact that he intends to do his job from Jerusalem - and not Tel Aviv as all of his predecessors have done - has given rise to speculation within Israel that president-elect Trump will make good on his campaign promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

That would break yet another taboo of existing US foreign policy. Until now, the US, and most other foreign nations, have refused to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The US State Department has made clear that Jerusalem's status can only be negotiated within the framework of a peace treaty. That is why the US embassy has always been located in Tel Aviv.

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Campaign posters for Trump and his running mate Mike Pence near a West Bank settlementImage: Reuters/B. Ratner

"Moving the embassy won't be done by simply renting a building," wrote Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea in the "Yedioth Ahronoth" newspaper. "Which Jerusalem will Trump recognize: The smaller pre-1967 Jerusalem, or 'Greater Jerusalem,' with the neighborhoods and villages annexed from the Palestinian people?" Over the last several days, there have been a number of stories in the Israeli press reporting that the Trump transition team has begun looking for suitable areas and buildings for a new embassy in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem's future remains one of the thorniest issues in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Palestinians envision East Jerusalem as the future capital of an independent Palestinian state. Observers say that moving the embassy could send the wrong signal, and possibly destroy Washington's already difficult role as a mediator. On December 1, President Obama signed a presidential waiver delaying the relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for another six months. This waiver has been regularly signed by every US president for the last two decades. The new ambassador will have to be patient before he can begin working from Jerusalem.