Trump's Ambassador Could (Accidentally) Benefit Israel
Donald Trump’s selection of David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel seems auspicious neither for the American Jewish community nor for the possibility of moving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward. But there could be more to it than first appears.
Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians has long been the single most contentious issue among American Jews. Left-leaning public intellectuals like Peter Beinart have accused the American Jewish establishment of ignoring criticism of Israel and dismissing the younger generation that sees the compromises of a two-state solution as the way to save Israel from itself. The American Jewish right, much more security-conscious, has largely sided with Israel’s political conservatives, arguing that the Palestinians have never been serious about peace.
For years now, each side has found an ally in one capital or the other. American Jewish conservatives have seen themselves as reflecting the worldview of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while Jewish progressives saw in U.S. President Barack Obama a sympathetic American leader. The result was a stalemate; the two sides have learned to assert their positions knowing that nothing much was going to change.
No longer. Trump’s diplomatic choice Friedman has clearly disdained the American Jewish left. He has likened supporters of one left-leaning group to “kapos,” a reference to Jews in concentration camps who collaborated with Nazis. Perhaps more significantly, Trump has promised to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a move from which numerous administrations have shied away for fear of infuriating the Arab world, and Friedman is an ardent supporter of the settlement project. So extreme are Friedman’s views, wrote Chemi Shalev for Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, that he “makes Netanyahu look like a J Street lefty.”
Leaders of the U.S. group J Street have vowed to try to block Friedman’s appointment, but they will most likely fail. Relegated by both Jerusalem and Washington to the political desert, American Jewish progressives will then struggle to have any policy impact at all. Many American Jews may simply walk away from the Israel issue in disgust. Given that this has been the only issue that animates all sectors of the community, the long-term implications for American Jewish cohesion are ominous.
Friedman’s appointment seems likely to unleash anger in the Middle East. The Palestinians have already warned that should the U.S. move the Embassy to Jerusalem (a move that could take several forms, some more provocative than others), they will withdraw their recognition of Israel and the U.S. will find itself disdained in numerous Arab capitals.
Friedman’s appointment erodes the Israeli left. It will strengthen Israeli parties to Netanyahu’s right, and the prime minister, the ultimate political survivor, may well drift to the right, infuriating both many American Jews as well as even Israeli centrist voters.
Another likely loser is the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and with him, his party Fatah and the Palestinian Authority itself. For decades, the Palestinians have pretended to play the diplomacy game but have done virtually nothing to move the peace process forward. President Obama recently noted that the Arab world continues to teach its children to hate Israel; Palestinians recently even named a school for the mastermind of the Munich Olympic massacre. Yet while American presidents chastise gently, Abbas has long been confident that Israel, not the Palestinians, would feel the brunt of American pressure.
Those days are gone. Trump and Friedman may well give Israel carte blanche to step up settlement building, with no pretense that Palestinian aspirations for eventual sovereignty matter very much. When Palestinians come to see that a decade of Abbas rule has achieved nothing, Fatah will likely lose ground to the more radical Hamas.
What will then happen is anyone’s guess. One possibility is that the Palestinians will resort to violence in a pattern that began in 1929, and the region will return to a cycle of Arab terror and Israeli reprisal. Everyone would suffer, and in the end, Palestinian statehood would not have moved one inch forward. Both sides understand that.
There is, however, another possibility. Netanyahu and Abbas may both realize that time is actually not on their side. Could this be the moment for them to compromise and to try to negotiate a real deal? Friedman would not like it, but he would not be able to overrule an Israeli electorate in favor. Abbas could go down in history as something other than a failure. Netanyahu claims to want such a deal. If Israelis and Palestinians would broker the deal without American intervention, the American Jewish right could not stop the accord in Washington or in the Israeli government.
Obviously, many things would have to go right for a scenario like this to unfold, and there is a very low likelihood of success. Yet it is not impossible. What it would take is for both populations to realize that making a deal soon is the path to both of their national aspirations: a Jewish democracy for Israelis and a state for Palestinians.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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