Over the past four years, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has charted a new direction towards Israel, Iran and the greater Middle East. Many of the policies advanced are considerably different from those of previous administrations—particularly that of Trump’s immediate predecessor, Barack Obama.
A central figure in the advancement of these policies has been U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, an American-Jewish bankruptcy attorney who represented Trump in previous business dealings, and a longtime advocate for Israeli settlements. His appointment was initially opposed by much of the U.S. diplomatic elite and many Mideast experts.
Highlights of the Trump administration’s Israel policy include official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city; the transfer of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; rollout of the Peace to Prosperity vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace, accepted by Israel as the basis for negotiations; and a reversal of longstanding American policy on the legality of suburban settlements in Judea and Samaria.
The U.S. election is likely to have profound implications for the future of America’s Mideast policy, including the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship and whether Friedman gets to spend another four years serving as ambassador. In the final weeks of a first and possibly only term, many of the Trump administration’s hard-fought efforts are only now beginning to bear fruit.
In just the past several weeks, three countries—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan—have pledged to fully normalize diplomatic and commercial relations with the State of Israel. In the wake of these deals, which were advanced over the course of many years, America has further committed to ensuring Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME)—a fundamental principle of the Israel-U.S. alliance.
Last week, Trump indicated that as many as 10 countries could enter into normalization agreements in the near future. Whether he remains president beyond 2020 promises to be a major contributing factor in the likelihood and speed of such accords.
Also, last week Israel and the United States signed a bilateral, government-to-government scientific-cooperation agreement, and simultaneously removed the geographic restrictions on three legacy foundations—the Binational Science Foundation (BSF), the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD) and the Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD). As a result, projects in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria are now eligible for US seed funding. Removal of the geographic restriction constitutes a major reversal of previous U.S. policy towards projects in Judea and Samaria.
In a wide-ranging interview with JNS at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, Ambassador Friedman identified the key differences between the Trump and Obama administrations on Israel and the Middle East, and how bringing new thought processes to longstanding conflicts have yielded new results.
Reversing ‘a betrayal’
JNS: The U.S. State Department announcement of the removal of geographic restrictions on the BSF, BIRD and BARD foundations refers to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, the passage of which was enabled by the Obama administration’s abstention. Resolution 2334 called Israeli settlements “a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”
Further, it called upon states to “distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.” Many Israelis were shocked that the Obama administration dealt Israel such a strong diplomatic blow at the Security Council just days before vacating office. Was this a low point in U.S.-Israel relations?
Friedman: It was absolutely a low point. It was betrayal by that administration of Israel. And I’ll tell you why I use that word so strongly, which maybe also kind of juxtaposes with the timing right now.
When you’re proud of something—when you believe in something, when you think it’s good for America—you do it before an election. You hold yourself accountable to the American people for your decision. We think that the decisions we made this week are good for America, and we’re proud of them.
Resolution 2334 was done the day before Christmas Eve by a lame-duck administration that was giving up power. To do something that controversial and that significant after the election, you’re speaking volumes about whether you think this is something good for America or something consistent with the will of the American people. That’s why it was a betrayal. It was absolutely a low point, and we’ve done everything we can in the last four years to reverse it. We can’t reverse it de jure, because we don’t control the Security Council, but we do have the ability to reverse it in practice.
JNS: Could a future administration reverse the moves that were made this week?
Friedman: The executive branch is incredibly powerful when it comes to foreign policy, so I don’t want to speculate on the bad things that a different future administration could do. But I don’t believe that it would make any sense to reverse such moves.
These agreements require the consent of both sides, so I don’t think that BSF, BIRD and BARD can be changed in the absence of agreement from Israel. And I have no reason to think that Israel would ever agree to go back to the dark days. I’m going to hope that we don’t have to confront that issue too soon. And since I believe what we did was in the best interest of the United States overwhelmingly, I am hopeful this position is accepted by any future administration.
JNS: When was it decided to change these agreements, and what is accomplished by modifying them?
Friedman: I wasn’t familiar with all of the agreements before I took this post, and even afterwards, I wasn’t aware of their language and geographic limitations until probably a year-and-a-half ago.
The State Department has now changed its legal assessment of communities in Judea and Samaria: we don’t view them to be illegal anymore. We don’t pass on the local issues of competing land claims, but generally, just because they are over the “Green Line,” we don’t believe that they are illegal. So to make our agreements consistent with our foreign policy, we needed to make the change.
JNS: How do these agreements enhance the U.S.-Israel alliance?
Friedman: Other than Canada, the country with the most foreign companies listed on NASDAQ is Israel. So that tells you the level at which Israeli companies are relevant to the American economy and are engaged in cooperation and commercial exchanges with America. The U.S. is Israel’s largest trading partner by far, as a single country.
I spent [Thursday] with U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi. The level of military, security and intelligence engagement is unprecedented in incredible ways. It’s always been good. It has certainly been good for the last generation, but nothing like it is now.
These particular bilateral agreements represent more than a billion-and-a-half dollars and thousands of projects over the course of the last 40 to 50 years. They fund grants to startups and academic research that are in their early stages. In addition to those three agreements, we have a new science-and-technology agreement that is government-to-government. It is the state-of-the-art cooperation with another country. And, of course, it also does not have any of the geographic restrictions.
JNS: Was the BSF formulated to help America and Israel jointly tackle the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic?
Friedman: This was conceived before the virus hit, but the pandemic is prompting a lot of changes in the way everyone’s doing business, such as the desire both in America and Israel to fix supply chains: not to be as reliant as they have in the past on critical raw materials or pharmaceuticals from other countries that may not be friendly or may have their own issues that they have to deal with.
For example, one of the discussions that I had this past week—with [Prime Minister] Netanyahu, the Emirati finance minister and U.S. Treasury Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin—was about creating a regional hub for things like vaccines, not just for COVID-19, but in the future key pharmaceuticals and raw materials in this part of the world, so that neither Israel nor the Emirates are subject to a supply-chain challenge like they’ve had from this virus.
‘Breaking down barriers’
JNS: What is the significance of signing the agreements at Ariel University, which has been subjected to academic and cultural boycotts due to its location in Samaria?
Friedman: It was no accident that we chose Ariel University. Ariel University has 16,000 students, at least 1,000 of whom are Palestinian. It represents the future of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. So, the more we can fund successful projects in Ariel or anywhere in that region, the more we’re advancing peace and stability. We all want peace. And, how do you get to peace? You get to peace by breaking down barriers, by creating opportunities for people to work together, study together, prosper together, get to know each other better.
JNS: You have been a major advocate of Israel declaring formal sovereignty over all of the settlements in Judea and Samaria, yet the initiative to do so was suddenly shelved. What are the chances that it will happen in the near future?
Friedman: The administration’s view of the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria is that we don’t think Israel should ever be asked to evacuate those communities. They certainly will not be asked under a Trump administration. We saw the template in 2005 with [Israel’s disengagement from] Gaza. It did not work; it did not go well. We certainly don’t expect Israel to open that self-inflicted wound again.
There are Israeli flags flying over Beit El, Shiloh, Ma’ale Adumim, Eli, etc., and we expect they will be flying there forever. But how that manages to manifest itself within a political declaration, we’re not there yet. We’re going to continue to push the peace initiative all around the region as far as we can. And I think eventually we’ll get back to this issue [of sovereignty] and hopefully in a way that can be done via consensus.
‘Nobody knew what to call Jerusalem’
JNS: Until now, dual citizens born in Jerusalem could not get a U.S. passport that listed Israel as the nation of birth. The issue has been the subject of a landmark Supreme Court case. Jerusalem was recognized as Israel’s capital in 2017. Why did it take so long to change the passport issue?
Friedman: It took a long time because the lawsuit was not successful. There were two different decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The first one addressed who had standing to sue. The second one looked at whether the executive branch or the legislative branch can deal with this issue. And it was a very interesting case. My favorite judge, [the late Antonin] Scalia actually dissented, but the majority said that only the president can determine place-of-birth designations on passports.
When President Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem in 2017, almost three years ago, we thought the next step would be to do the passport designation. But not everybody in the State Department agreed, including, then-Secretary of State [Rex Tillerson], who refused to do it. Then we had a better secretary of state [Mike Pompeo] appointed, and we had to go through a fairly significant internal process in terms of legal analysis. We got here today. This is how long it took.
Just before this interview, I had the honor of bestowing the first-ever passport to an American citizen born in Jerusalem that designated his place of birth as Israel. And it was none other than Menachem Zivotowsky, who is now 18 years old. The court appeal literally started right after he was born. When he received his new passport, he got up and he said the Shehechiyanu blessing [over a new or auspicious event]. It was a very nice service.
JNS: Why wouldn’t previous administrations or secretaries of state want to make the change sooner, considering that Jerusalem has been the capital of the modern State of Israel since 1948?
Friedman: They obviously viewed Jerusalem’s status as being undetermined. Until we came along, nobody knew what to call Jerusalem, which is kind of crazy, because the seat of government is there; the Knesset is there; the prime minister lives there; the president lives there; the Supreme Court is there. It’s been considered Israel’s capital since 1948. It’s been considered Israel’s biblical capital for 3,000 years.
Our country usually gets it right, but sometimes it takes us a long time and we need to have the right leadership. We finally have the right leadership.
‘Repeating a 3,500-year-old prophecy’
JNS: Many have said that peace between the Jewish state and the Muslim world was impossible on theological grounds. How has the Trump administration been able to circumvent these fundamental issues in advancing normalization agreements?
Friedman: There isn’t a deep theological issue. Our experience is just the opposite: that there is deep respect in the Sunni-Muslim world—or at least among the leaders we are dealing with—for the Jewish religion.
I’ll prove it to you theologically. This all started from Abraham, who was the Av Hamon Goyim [patriarch of many nations]. He had descendants through Isaac, and he had descendants through Ishmael. The 12 tribes came from Jacob, Isaac’s son and Abraham’s grandson. And 12 princes came from Ishmael.
We know they were rivals. We know that they fought with each other. Abraham was unhappy about it, but how did it end up? After Abraham passed away, Isaac and Ishmael together buried their father Abraham. What does [Biblical commentator] Rashi say? That Ishmael was a hozer b’teshuva [a penitent in his ways]. So, what’s the theological basis for conflict? The Bible says that they reconciled.
What we’re doing now is just repeating a 3,500-year-old prophecy. We’re doing it all over again.
I’ll put it to you in simple terms. I’m traveling. I want to get a kosher meal. Where do I have an easier time getting a kosher meal, in Washington, D.C., or Abu Dhabi? You know what the answer is? Abu Dhabi. That’s how theological this conflict is.
JNS: How does the Trump administration’s approach to regional peace differ from that of previous administrations, and how have you been able to change beliefs on prospects for peace so quickly?
Friedman: We have different types of conversations. We actually know how to engage with counter parties. You know the level of formality that existed under these prior administrations? I think there was a sort of rigidity. I mean, they’d walk into a room; their meetings would be scripted by 10 analysts; they’d have nine talking points; they’d sit there and read off their talking points.
We sit down and we talk to people. We try to understand them. We ask what they really care about, what they don’t care about, why something is important to them or why it isn’t. It’s a matter of developing relationships, developing trust. In that environment, you actually get much more productive reactions from people. You keep promises. You build trust by keeping promises. You do what you say you’re going to do.
JNS: What kept promises built the most trust?
Friedman: Counter-intuitively, the most important thing we did towards peace was moving the embassy to Jerusalem. We showed not just to the pro-Israel community, but to the entire region, that the president keeps his promises. And that he’s not afraid of baseless, groundless threats from rogue players. And that he’s willing to stand with an ally and in front of the entire world. When some of our Arab friends saw that, they said: “We want the same thing. We want to be an ally of the United States. We want to be an ally of Israel. This all makes sense. Why shouldn’t we?”
So, I think trust is really the key element here that the president was able to garner that no one else could.
JNS: Neither you, President Trump or advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt had diplomatic experience before setting out to bring about peace between factions that have been warring in a protracted conflict. Was that an advantage?
Friedman: Don’t underestimate the significance of being engaged in business over a long career. There has been this criticism of the president that he’s transactional. I don’t understand that. That to me doesn’t seem like a criticism. Transactional means you sit with somebody and try to understand what the mutual interests are. You try to understand what the other side wants. You figure out what you want. You figure out what you need, and you try to bridge differences and get to a conclusion. That’s a win-win for both sides. That’s an enormous asset in a leader.
‘We don’t dangle benefits’
JNS: The president said that up to 10 countries could normalize with Israel. When do you expect other nations to jump onboard?
Friedman: To borrow an analogy, we’ve split the sea already. The Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan are different countries, each with different interests and very different populations, each with very different challenges. So that’s a good cross-section, if you will, of the Arab League.
To me, the only reason why other countries are not here right now is because they’re hedging their bets. They’re saying that maybe they want to hold something back for another administration. It’s all election-driven. If the president is reelected, we will easily have five more countries in very short order.
JNS: Countries like the UAE and Sudan have received significant benefits for announcing the normalization of ties with Israel. UAE is now getting 50 F-35s, and Sudan is being removed from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. How will you use American leverage to encourage other countries to normalize ties as well?
Friedman: We don’t dangle benefits in order to get countries to make peace with Israel. You sort of have that in reverse. We would only take Sudan off the terrorist list if it belonged off the terrorist list. That’s why it is off the terrorist list. We saw that it had made significant strides. We also insisted that it come up with the money to pay certain victims of terrorism and it did those things. And that stood alone.
We also encouraged Sudan to make peace, to normalize with Israel, because we thought it was in its best interest, and the best interest of the region. The normalization with Israel stands on its own.
The same thing applies with the Emirates. We didn’t say to the Emirates: “If you normalize and make peace with Israel, you get the following things.” It’s in their interest, our interest and Israel’s interest for that normalization to occur. That normalization has been in the works covertly for many years. Then, with that normalization in place, and with the alliances that are being created, we’re able to consider the advanced weaponry in a different context. That certainly makes the Emirates a better candidate.
Having said that, there’s a fair amount of work that was done over the last few weeks between the United States and Israel to try and figure this out in the context of Israel’s QME. Both the prime minister and the defense minister—who may not have agreed on a lot of things lately—agreed that this transaction with the Emirates would be consistent within the framework of Israel’s qualitative military edge.
‘Exploding with opportunities’
JNS: Aside from direct commercial opportunities, how does normalizing ties with Israel benefit other countries in the Middle East and beyond the region?
Friedman: What we’ve demonstrated is that normalizing ties with Israel makes countries more secure and prosperous for two reasons. Number one—from the perspective of the United States—we see countries that normalize with Israel as countries willing to embrace peace, modernity, human rights and other important values that we care about. We share values with Israel, so countries that embrace Israel are embracing American values as well.
Number two, it stabilizes the Middle East. It makes it less likely that the United States will get drawn into further conflicts there. It also increases our ability to rely on our allies, because our allies become much more valuable and trustworthy.
For example, our alliance with the Emirates has certainly been upgraded because of the Emirates’ relationship with Israel. And the Emirates are right across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran. So, from the perspective of the United States and Israel, Iran is now in a weaker position. And if Iran is in a weaker position, the world is a safer place.
All these things kind of fuse together, both from a perspective of security and from a perspective of advancing American values throughout the world.
JNS: How do the Abraham Accords affect negotiations with the Palestinians, and are there any early indications that Palestinian Authority leaders may want to jump aboard the peace train?
Friedman: Leaders, no not yet. People, many. Look, there’s two different pieces here that I think are relevant to the Palestinian conflict. On the negative side, the Palestinians see that they’ve lost their veto within the region—which is very important because they shouldn’t have had it in the first place. The Palestinians should not have the ability to tell other nations how to do what is best for their own citizens.
On the positive side, the Palestinian people are seeing the whole region expanding—I would say “exploding,” although I don’t know if it is good to use that word in the Middle East, but exploding with good opportunities. Trade, tourism, science, technology; the opportunities here are boundless.
And I think that the Palestinian people are looking at this and saying, “Wait a minute; the Arab Israelis now have this great opportunity to engage with the region and do business within the region. Why shouldn’t we have those same opportunities?” Or they are looking at Jews who live right across the street from them in the adjoining villages, and saying, “Why shouldn’t we have those opportunities?”
So, on the one hand, the Palestinian leaders now understand that they don’t have the leverage that they thought they had—which was always unhelpful—and they should hopefully recalibrate. But the people themselves see great opportunities, and I’m optimistic that they’ll jump on it.
JNS: After the passage of Resolution 2334, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that “there will be no advanced and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is the hard reality,” adding, “I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, ‘Well, the Arab world is in a different place now; we just have to reach out to them, and we can work some things with the Arab world, and we’ll deal with the Palestinians.’ No, no, no and no.”
Was this misguided thinking? Or is it more than that?
Friedman: I know a lot of smart people thought this. We all heard the Kerry speech at the Saban Forum during which he gave the “four nos.” There also were the “three nos” in Khartoum [no peace with Israel; no recognition of Israel; no negotiations with Israel.] Just wrong. There’s no other way to put it. It wasn’t that it was misguided. It wasn’t slightly off. It was absolutely 100% wrong.
I think history will not be kind to the people who oppose this direction. This is a pathway that we are very proud of. I think anybody objectively looking would see it as transformational within the region. You know, the Middle East has been a place of conflict for Americans going back to the early 19th century, when the Barbary pirates were intercepting American vessels. And Thomas Jefferson had to figure out how to send troops to the Barbary Coast. So, we’ve been drawn into this region in a negative way for almost two centuries.
We’ve done more for the cause of peace within this region than any administration in the history of the United States. And, I think those opposing us just are not seeing the situation clearly.
JNS: How are Palestinians affected by taking advice from members of the Kerry school of thought?
Friedman: Remember, the Palestinian leadership made a terrible miscalculation last year, when we had the Bahrain conference. You had some wealthy states, sovereign wealth funds, rich companies, big companies, with some of the biggest checkbooks in the world sitting around talking about how to help the Palestinian people. Who didn’t show up? The Palestinians. Who boycotted? The Palestinians. It was a huge mistake.
Hopefully, they will begin to understand from this chain of events that the world will continue to turn with or without them. And if they jump on board, the opportunities are limitless.
‘If we had another year’
JNS: In the event that the Trump administration is given another term in office, what do you anticipate will be accomplished in a second term?
Friedman: I hope we have the time. I don’t think we need four years. I think that if it were clear that President Trump was going to be around for a second term, it would probably take just a year before we could change the Middle East for the better for the next 100 years. I think we would end the Arab-Israeli conflict. I think we would make peace with the Palestinians. I think the Iranians would recognize that there is no future in malign activity—in trying to pursue a nuclear weapon.
We planted a lot of seeds in the first couple of years. We’ve been harvesting a lot of fruit in the last year. But there’s still a lot of fruit on the tree. And we could harvest that very successfully within the next 12 months.
We have a great ally in Israel. We’ve now built great alliances with the moderate Sunni states. And we are really at a point where we can fix this problem once and for all, if we have the time.
JNS: What has it meant to you personally to serve as ambassador?
Friedman: It’s been the greatest honor of my life. I was raised as a very proud American and a very proud Zionist. I always hoped that I’d be able to actualize both of those sources of pride in a meaningful way. Never did I think it would be in such a profound way. Obviously, my relationship with President Trump is the key to all of this. I’m very grateful to him, and I thank God.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate