Secretary of State Antony Blinken was dispatched to Israel by U.S. President Joe Biden this week in the direct aftermath of an acute conflagration highlighted by 11 days of indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas on Israeli population centers and pinpoint Israeli airstrikes on Hamas installations in Gaza in retaliation.
Blinken attempted to apply significant pressure on Israel behind closed doors in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority, which were suspended during the Trump administration, were officially restored.
The visit confirmed fears in Jerusalem that Washington’s policy would now be essentially reversed, following four of the friendliest years ever between a U.S. administration and Israel. The United States intends to renew funding to the P.A. and reopen a shuttered consulate in Jerusalem dealing exclusively with Palestinian affairs. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has explicitly rejected the prospect of opening up a Palestinian office in Israel’s capital.
In addition, Blinken updated Netanyahu on U.S. intentions to negotiate towards a new Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Former President Donald Trump had pulled out of the deal in May 2018 and set about to level the harshest sanctions to date on any nation against the Islamic Republic.
On the heels of Blinken’s visit, JNS sat down with former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a trusted adviser of former Trump, and one of the key architects of the administration’s Mideast policies.
Q: Israel is taking tremendous heat from the international community. Was Israel too tough in its response to Hamas’s firing of more than 4,000 rockets into Israeli population centers?
A: No. As a matter of fact, it was acknowledged this week how precise and targeted the Israeli response was. As technology improves, Israel gets better and better with each conflict in targeting the launchers, the terrorists, the weaponry, and the command and control centers. Israel’s technology keeps getting better and their intelligence is better.
I thought that in this particular conflict, Israel’s response was spectacular. They dealt a massively crushing blow to Hamas—unfortunately, not a knockout punch—but a real blow with a remarkable attempt to minimize civilian casualties. And, in fact, many of the civilian casualties were the result of Hamas rockets that misfired and landed in Gaza.
Q: Should Israel have delivered a knockout punch?
A: My understanding is that a knockout punch would require a ground operation. And then the question is: If you deliver a knockout punch, then what do you do? Do you leave? If you stay, you’re in for who knows how long. If you want to leave, you have to leave Gaza with somebody who will keep another terrorist group from filling the vacuum. I’m not aware of anybody that’s willing to take on that role.
Q: Should the United States be sending emergency humanitarian aid now into Gaza?
A: I believe in humanitarian aid if it can be appropriately targeted to the right people under the right circumstances. But Gaza is very challenging because the United States doesn’t have a formal relationship with Hamas. They are a terrorist organization, with 30,000 terrorists holding 2 million people hostage. It is tremendously challenging for the United States to get the money to the right place.
In Gaza, America works through UNRWA (U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees). UNRWA is a corrupt organization, which breeds incitement and hatred for Israel and the Jewish people. And so, to get funds to the right place without having the money diverted for rockets and terror tunnels is very difficult. Even the U.S. State Department acknowledged this week that they were not confident that they could earmark money in a way that would provide humanitarian relief.
Q: Do you think that even before they fired the first rocket that Hamas understood that they would receive an influx of aid, humanitarian or otherwise, to rebuild whatever Israel destroyed?
A: Yes. Hamas has played this game before. I think they were probably surprised by the Israeli response, and they probably thought that Israel would be reined in sooner by the United States. I’m certainly grateful that the United States did not hold Israel back in defending itself. But Hamas knows that they have a blank check from the world at large to keep rebuilding because that is what has happened every time in the past. And it will happen again.
Q: Is there any equivalency, moral or otherwise, between Israelis and Palestinians in this flare-up?
A: No, absolutely not. Israel would not have fired a single missile at Gaza if Hamas didn’t start this and fire a barrage of rockets.
The easiest way for Gaza to have avoided this conflict was not to have started it and not to have shot hundreds of rockets in multiple directions. Israel is defending its civilians. Hamas is putting its civilians in harm’s way to score points in public opinion.
Q: Why does Hamas project that they won this conflict, and why do others believe them?
A: Well, Hamas grades itself on a curve. Their view is that if we’re still standing, if Israel hasn’t wiped us out, then what we have proven is that we can attack Israel and survive. And if that is the metric for victory, then that is their argument.
I’ll tell you where they scored a lot of points. Look at Wednesday’s article in The New York Times by [Thomas L.] Friedman. He writes that this conflict is the reason why synagogues are being attacked in America. That’s a huge win for Hamas if Hamas thinks that they can cause the United States to be a place where the Jews are not safe.
I disagree with Tom Friedman. I think anti-Semitism is independent of anything having to do with the Palestinians. The people who hate Jews, hate Jews. I think they’re just looking for an excuse. I think most of these people are thugs. I think their command of the material is zero. They don’t know anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are looking for an excuse to beat up Jews. And they’ll find another excuse if it was not for this conflict
Q: How would you grade the Biden administration’s response to the conflict, and did they provide appropriate cover to Israel to defend itself as needed?
A: There’s no reason why Israel should not have the right, like every other country, to defend itself against this type of threat. There’s no other country that goes through this type of torment every few years. I’d like to think they provided cover because it was the right thing to do. But I think in the aftermath over the last couple of days, the pendulum swung back too far in an unhelpful way.
This was a test of the Biden administration. I think it’s too soon to write the post-mortem, but the response to the Palestinians—of kind of giving them a free pass on behavior that would be unacceptable in any civilized nation—is a mistake.
Q: How would you compare the Biden administration’s response with a theoretical Trump administration response?
A: The Trump administration would have given Israel free reign to defend itself. We trusted Israel. Israel has zero interest in extending this conflict; zero interest in killing civilians
Q: Why did the Trump administration defund the P.A.?
A: Because the Palestinian Authority continued to pay terrorists, continued to reject negotiations and continued to engage in malign activity. It did not recognize the human rights of its own people. The Palestinian leadership was corrupt. They don’t respect peaceful coexistence. They don’t have financial transparency. We had no confidence that the funds that we were providing were going to the right place. And the Palestinian leadership refused to accept any level of accountability to take the steps necessary to treat their people the right way and to engage in appropriate diplomacy.
So we weren’t going to use taxpayer dollars to fund what we considered to be anywhere from inappropriate, to immoral, to absolutely malign activity.
American diplomacy is designed to export our values throughout the world. We think we have the right values to make the world a better, more peaceful, more prosperous place. What are those values? Peaceful coexistence, religious tolerance, financial transparency and respect for human rights. These are the core values of U.S. diplomacy.
The Palestinian leadership—whether it’s the P.A., Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad—does not respect those values. The only way the United States can make a change and export its values is by demanding accountability. Funding bad behavior is the antithesis of demanding accountability.
We’re giving the Palestinians lots of money, and we’re not requiring anything in return.
Q: Is there an obligation for the United States to be “even-handed” in diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians?
A: What we did, which I think was important and ultimately led to peace agreements with five countries, is we stood with Israel. We supported Israel because it was the right thing to do. We moved the embassy to Jerusalem and we established massive credibility with Israel that ultimately led to Israel, for the first time in its history, to agree to a map by which it would be willing to live side by side with Palestinians in peace and coexistence and prosperity—if certain conditions that don’t exist now were met. That agreement happened because of the credibility that we established.
There’s no reason to be even-handed here or to be balanced. Our interests are with Israel. Israel is an incredibly important ally for our own national security, for our own commerce, for our own values, for Judeo-Christian values. We don’t need to apologize for that. And because we stood with Israel, the Palestinians recognized that they needed to change.
Now, you may say, those policies made the Palestinians angry. Their leadership is angry because we were demanding a certain level of accountability. But, if we would have been in office for four more years, I believe the Palestinian leadership would have probably changed and moved towards that level of accountable behavior.
Q: How do you account for the past four years being among the quietest in Israel’s modern history with regard to terror and conflict?
A: They were extremely quiet. Why? Because terrorists … and I’m drawing a distinction between the Palestinian people and terrorists … most Palestinians are not terrorists. The vast majority of them want to live in peace like everybody else. They want to live in prosperity. They want what’s good for their children. So, this is not an attack on the Palestinian people, but there are terrorists. There are 30,000 terrorists in Hamas; there is Palestinian Islamic jihad; there is the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade; there is the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam [the military wing of Hamas]; Fatah has its own elements of terrorists. Those terrorists understood that if they attacked, that Israel—like any other country—had free reign to defend itself, by itself, as it saw fit.
And that’s why the past four years were among the quietest years in the last couple of decades. Nobody tested Israel and nobody tested President Trump because they understood where we stood.
Q: Is the current Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah Party agents that can bring stability and peace in their relationship with Israel?
A: I haven’t seen that. I think Abu Mazen [Abbas] is hanging on by a thread. I think that his track record of corruption, rejection of human rights, rejection of financial transparency; I think he has destroyed the ability of the Palestinian leadership to have any credibility.
The only reason people take Abbas seriously is because he is better than Hamas. I’ll concede he’s slightly better than Hamas from the perspective of violence and terrorism. But that is not enough to be the leader of a people, seeking to advance their interests of dignity and opportunity.
Q: What message do this conflict and the harsh U.S. reaction send to the remainder of the region?
A: Nobody likes uncertainty. Nobody likes to see a policy that was working suddenly get abandoned. I don’t think there’s any country in the region, with the exception of Iran, and debatably maybe Turkey as well, which supports Hamas. The rest of the region is aligned generally with Israel against extremists.
Q: Is the Biden administration undermining the Abraham Accords?
A: If America is going to go back into the JCPOA, they’re certainly going to undermine one of the foundations of the Abraham Accords. It isn’t the only one. There’s a lot to be gained reciprocally between Israel and the Abraham Accord countries unrelated to Iran, but certainly one of the foundational principles was a common front against Iran. And I think it is a huge mistake, both diplomatically and in terms of national security, to provide Iran with funding. It’s unimaginable to me that Iran will do any of the things that any reasonable person would require for entering into a new deal right now.
Q: Before you left the office, the administrations in both Israel and the United States hinted that several other countries were lined up to continue the momentum and sign normalization agreements with Israel. In the current environment, do you see that process being delayed?
Friedman: I think this can be more difficult right now with the current posture on Iran. I think it’s going to be more difficult with the kind of equivocation that the United States is displaying with regard to its policy in the Middle East. You know, I think we would have in probably less than two years, had at least double the number of countries normalized. And I think we would have changed the region dramatically. I still think that will happen. But I’m not confident because of where I see the current administration’s diplomacy going. I am not confident that they are approaching this in a way that will lead to more nations signing on.
Q: Why was the Oslo process a failure?
A: In the aftermath of Oslo, Palestinian terrorism increased four-fold. When you sign an agreement, the whole purpose of an agreement is to avoid terrorism and to achieve peace. And in the very first year, terrorism increased four-fold in terrible ways. Suicide bombers on buses; blowing up restaurants. My cousin lost his bride in a restaurant in Cafe Hillel the night before the wedding.
I really encourage everybody to listen carefully to what Yitzchak Rabin said in the Knesset when he was advocating for the Oslo Accords. Yitzhak Rabin, by all accounts, is revered as Israel’s most courageous leader in the cause of peace. And I have great respect for Yitzhak Rabin. Listen to what he said at the Knesset. He said, referring to the Oslo Accords that he envisioned that the Palestinians will have less than a state, and less than all of the land of Judah and Samaria. Now look at our peace plan. We are right there with [former Israel Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin, yet our plan is referred to as being lopsided in favor of Israel. Yitzhak Rabin would have loved our plan. And the people that seek peace should understand that what they’ve done over the last 25 years has been to move the goalposts so far to the left in favor of the Palestinians that I don’t think the current peace movement would be recognizable to Rabin.
Q: How was the Trump administration’s approach to peace different?
A: I think our vision for peace is extremely important because for the first time Israel became sufficiently comfortable with the United States, that it became willing to kind of be candid about where it might or might go with regards to peace with the Palestinians. And at the same time, one of the things that we did was to lay out the types of reversals of conduct that were necessary for the Palestinians in order to gain a seat at the table. Meaning, you can’t pay terrorists and simultaneously negotiate peace. You can’t be shooting rockets to negotiate peace. You can’t have Hamas in charge and negotiate peace. You can’t have a system that doesn’t recognize property rights or religious tolerance or human rights. So I think that was a gift frankly, to the Palestinian people to lay those things out.
Q: Should there be a special consulate handling Palestinian affairs in Jerusalem?
A: Why would there be a new consulate now in Jerusalem when now there is an embassy in Jerusalem? The embassy is providing visas and passports to whoever needs them on a non-discriminatory basis. The embassy services Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims. So there no need for a consulate.
Now, if you are suggesting that there ought to be an embassy for the Palestinians; well, there would need to be a Palestinian state for that, and there is none. The United States doesn’t recognize a nation of Palestine and it certainly doesn’t recognize that Palestinians have a capital in Jerusalem. Now if you’re establishing a consulate in Jerusalem to signal that Jerusalem will someday be the capital of a Palestinian state, then you’ve gone way overboard in terms of U.S. foreign policy.
The Jerusalem Embassy Act, which was passed in 1995, says explicitly in Section 3, Paragraph A1: “Jerusalem should remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected.” That is the policy of the United States. By putting a consulate in Jerusalem and signaling a separate mission and a separate capital to another country, you are essentially dividing Jerusalem. That would be absolutely 180 degrees opposite of the policy of the United States, which was passed by an act of Congress. Opening another consulate or mission for Palestinians in Jerusalem would violate the Jerusalem Embassy Act.
Q: If not an official consulate in Jerusalem, should there be a diplomatic mission for Palestinians elsewhere?
A: If the United States wants to open up a diplomatic mission to the Palestinians, I suggest that they open up an office, not a consulate, because Palestine is not a country and the United States doesn’t recognize a Palestinian state. Furthermore, [Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, known as] Abu Mazen doesn’t come to Jerusalem. He either goes to Bethlehem or he is [headquartered] in Ramallah. I would suggest that the U.S. opens up an office in Ramallah, and they can staff it there with state department officials, and they could spend more time with the Palestinian leadership. But it should not be a consulate and it should not be in Jerusalem.
Q: Should diplomatic relations with Palestinians be run from a separate office than the one that handles diplomatic relations with Israel?
A: I don’t think so because it’s better to have it all under one roof so that the policies are coordinated. When I was ambassador, under my leadership, we had a Palestinian affairs unit in Jerusalem. I think it was very effective. It was staffed with very good people who certainly had very good contacts within the Palestinian community, and I think that worked well. Now, if the United States wants to upgrade that relationship, I don’t have a problem with upgrading the relationship.
Q: Legally, can a new consulate be opened without Israel’s tacit approval?
Friedman: No, America would need Israel’s express approval. Any mission to any country requires the host country’s approval. In 2018, I had to request official permission from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Q: What’s your prescription for returning to a more peaceful period?
Friedman: This is the Middle East. You obtain peace by projecting strength. You receive violence, adventurism and mischief by projecting weakness and equivocation.
The Biden administration has been in office for four months. They’re smart people, but I’m not happy with the direction that they’ve taken. They certainly have been around this field for a while. Yet they seem to be reverting to a kind of conventional wisdom, which over the last 50 years has not been successful.
I think objectively our policies worked. I think that to the extent that our policies are now being rejected; my fear is that it’s much more a matter of anti-Trump than anti-policy. And I think that is a shame because we all want the same thing. We all want what’s best for America. And I hope it’s not politicized.