In defense of the choice of David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel and Trump's new policy

December 20, 2016
December 20, 2016
Middle East

The battle for Aleppo, the recent killing of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, and the general uproar over Russian intervention in the US election has kept domestic American tension firmly focused on the Syrian conflict. Donald Trump’s appointment of New York bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel elicited some attention, both for his expressed views on what Israel should do(annex the West Bank) and for his comments on anti-Israel Jews. Most of this controversy, however, either was relegated to the Jewish media generally, or presented as another example of the President-elect pandering to the right.

There has been some effort to focus on how his appointment, combined with Trump’s promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would represent a departure from previous American support for a “Two State Solution”. That may well be the case, but outrage has been limited by the fact that the process is currently comatose in any case, and much as with issues such as Syria, Russia, or free trade during the campaign, consensus has been consensus so long that most mainstream politicians have lost the ability to defend it on the merits. In a world with Syria imploding and the “Peace Process” a punchline outside academic circles and think tanks, it seems unconvincing to argue that such an approach would make the region more violent, since it seems almost impossible for things to get worse.

This probably explains why Democrats are unlikely to fight the Friedman nomination. Not only is there no electoral constituency for either the Palestinian cause or the “Peace Process”, but the alignment of political forces within the Democratic caucus makes such a fight hazardous. The Democratic minority leader in the Senate is Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, himself a member of both New York City’s legal and Jewish communities. While Schumer has major differences with Friedman, he enjoys a solid relationship with individuals who themselves are close to Friedman, and would find a fight against Friedman, especially if conducted on the basis that Friedman was too Pro-Israel, as a dangerous indication that the Democratic party might be moving away from its support of Israel. With little to gain, and a lot to lose, it makes no sense for Democrats to chose this battlefield, and even less for Schumer personally.

So much for the domestic politics. But just because Friedman will be confirmed, that doesn’t mean that his impact will be limited. For many established members of the foreign policy establishment, Democrat as well as Republican, his choice is one more example of a reckless policy.

Perhaps. But with the current policy reaching an impasse, there is an argument in favor of the view that unilateral action, by the United States, Israel, and potentially a well-inclined Russia, would revitalize rather than destroy the prospects for a settlement. It is no coincidence that the issue that is most contentious among those Trump has raised, the status of Jerusalem, has also been the one that a number of past efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian settlement have run aground on.  The general approach has been to delay its “final status” until the end of the process, ensuring that a time bomb is set to go off at the end. Proposals floated by well-meaning but delusional international observers, such as making it an international city, collapse on the lack of trust between the sides, and unwillingness of the international community to provide the combat troops necessary to make such a security situation work, or the fact that it would still involve removing Jerusalem from Israeli control.

On a wider level, the major problem with Jerusalem is that the whole debate has been distorted by the fact that the two sides perceive their negotiating strength differently. Israel won Jerusalem in a war, controls the entire city, and cannot be made to give it up. At that point anything at all, including allowing the continued existence of the Dome of the Rock counts as a concession. Palestinians are obsessed with international law, and insist on pretending that this provides them with a “claim” on the entire city, albeit one that is entirely fictitious on the ground, which makes any Israeli presence a concession.

As such, settling the status of Jerusalem first, rather than last has an appeal. And because Palestinian claims are solely based upon “international law” rather than the actual reality on the ground, the easiest way of settling it is to bring the “legal” situation into line with the physical one. Recognition by the United States of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, demonstrated by moving the embassy, would make clear to the Palestinians that the precondition for any American mediation or support is recognizing that Jerusalem is part of Israel. But this approach can be taken further. The last few years have seen a rapprochement between Russia and Israel and with Donald Trump in office, it might be possible to actually force recognition of Israel’s ownership of Jerusalem through the UN Security Council. Britain would almost certainly vote for such a motion if it was backed by the United States, while China generally abstains on most international conflicts outside of its region. With the United States and Russia onboard, it is hard to see France blocking it. France might abstain, but would be unlikely to oppose, lest it leads to a greater rapprochement between Washington and Moscow at Paris’ expense.

Once passed, such a resolution would be impossible to reverse without the support of the United States due to the US veto. As such, for all practical purposes, Israel’s sole and exclusive claim to Jerusalem would be enshrined in international law. As such, the Palestinians would have no leg to base any claim whatsoever on. Without a doubt, such a move would lead to outrage in the short-run, and likely the Palestinians withdrawing from any talks, but those talks are meaningless at the present time. Eventually the burdens of occupation and the realization that no international force was coming to the rescue would force the Palestinians back to the table, the precondition for which would be recognizing Israel’s ownership of Jerusalem. Once that was accepted, the talks could proceed on a more realistic level, one that focuses on the concessions Israel might actually make.

With Jerusalem off the table, Israel might be willing to make greater concessions elsewhere, and the Palestinians, along with their supporters in Europe, would have less unrealistic expectations about what such a state would look like. That would make a settlement possible.

It is plausible that there is no greater plan behind this appointment, or that such an approach wouldn’t work. But the current policy is going nowhere. This has a chance to actually change things. Sheer intellectual inertia is not a reason not to consider a new policy on its own merits.



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