Over the past four years, the administration of President Donald Trump charted a new direction towards Israel, Iran and the greater Middle East. Many of the policies advanced during this period have looked 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 US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a bankruptcy attorney who represented Trump in previous business dealings and is a longtime advocate for Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. Friedman is a resident of Woodsburgh village in the Five Towns.
In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with JNS at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, 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. A portion of this interview is published here.
JNS: You have been a major advocate of Israel’s declaring its 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 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.
Until now, dual citizens born in Jerusalem could not get a US 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?
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 a 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. It was very nice service.
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?
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.
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?
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 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, 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 or Abu Dhabi? You know what the answer is? Abu Dhabi. That’s how theological this conflict is.
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?
Under these prior administrations … there was a sort of rigidity. … 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 build trust by keeping promises. You do what you say you’re going to do.
What kept promises built most trust?
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?”
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?
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.
The president said up to 10 countries could normalize with Israel. When do you expect other nations to jump onboard?
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.
Countries like UAE and Sudan have received significant benefits for announcing normalization of ties with Israel. UAE is now getting 50 F-35’s, 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?
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 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 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.
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.
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 [Qualitative Miliary Edge]. 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 QME.
Aside from direct commercial opportunities, how does normalizing ties with Israel benefit other countries in the Middle East and beyond the region?
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.
How do the Abraham Accords affect negotiations with Palestinians, and are there any early indications Palestinian Authority leaders may want to jump aboard the peace train?
Leaders, no not yet. People, many.
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 — 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?”
The Palestinian leaders … see that they’ve lost their veto within the region, which they shouldn’t have had in the first place … and they should hopefully recalibrate. But the people themselves see great opportunities, and I’m optimistic that they’ll jump on it.
After the passage of Resolution 2334, former US 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?
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” [at the 1967 Arab League summit after the Six-Day War] 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 percent 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.
If the Trump administration is given another term in office, what do you anticipate will be accomplished in a second term?
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.
What has it meant to you personally to serve as ambassador?
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 G-d.