The ambassadorship to Israel used to be one of the most sensitive postings in the American diplomatic corps. Doubly delicate, it was both an assignment to one of the tensest regions of the vital Middle East and considered off limits to American Jews – a post always to be filled by a career foreign service officer (FSO). The State Department, notorious for Arabist sentiments and Ivy League antisemitism, was adamant that no one be tainted with “dual loyalty” when it came to the Jewish state.
These taboos came to an end with the presidency of Bill Clinton, who in 1995 appointed Martin Indyk, an academic and the first non-FSO political appointee to the post. A naturalized U.S. citizen born in London and raised in Australia, Indyk became America’s first Jewish ambassador to the Jewish state. Regarded with suspicion by the old hands of Foggy Bottom, he faced more than a few challenges during his tenure, including the accusation that he had mishandled classified information on his laptop (for which he was temporarily removed from his post).
Nineteen ninety-five was also the year Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which mandated the transfer of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by 1999. That meaningless act of political theater has yet to be fulfilled. One of its provisions permits the President to issue six-month waivers should some overriding national security interest require deferring the transfer. And so every six months for 17 years Bill Clinton, George W. Bush (both had campaigned as candidates that they would instigate the move from the Oval Office), and Barack Obama have found sufficient reason to invoke the waiver.
As the Arab-Israel-Palestine conflict has come to consume more and more time of secretaries of state, the decisive role of the U.S. envoy has receded. If Madeleine Albright or Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice or Hillary Clinton or John Kerry were making regular visitations to Jerusalem, why bother putting a seasoned FSO in the ambassador’s chair? Early loyalty and service to a presidential candidate thus became a surer path to the beachfront embassy in Tel Aviv.
In the last two decades the position has been filled most often by American Jews with a strong academic and policy interest. To the consternation of the Israeli government, these political appointees have often taken strong public exception to Israeli government policies. Indyk in particular, and his successors Dan Kurtzer and Dan Shapiro to a lesser degree, were openly critical of Israeli policy on matters of deep controversy inside Israel – especially West Bank settlement construction and expansion.
Which brings us to President-elect Donald J. Trump and the man he proposes to nominate as ambassador to the Jewish state.
David Friedman is Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer. David Friedman knows where the skeletons of Trump’s tax returns are hidden.
If David Friedman wanted the ambassadorship to planet Vulcan, Trump would have to create a planet just to give it to him.
But David Friedman is not just a bankruptcy lawyer. In support of his friend and client Trump, he has undiplomatically and publicly taken sides in American Jewish communal affairs and in Israeli domestic politics to a degree unheard of in the history of the American diplomatic service.
Of course, Donald Trump doesn’t care a bit about any of it – for now. For another four weeks, the president-elect can issue 140-character haikus without a care in the world how the world might react. My next ambassador to Israel says the bedrock commitment of the United States to a two-state solution is in fact a sham? My next ambassador to Israel calls J Street and other liberal Jews worse than the kapos of the death camps? My next ambassador wants to be immediately ensconced in an embassy in Jerusalem? My next ambassador to Israel would rather be plenipotentiary to the settler state of Judea and Samaria? So what?
But after the inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20 Secretary of State designee Rex Tillerson will have to care what his ambassador’s record has been when talking to America’s Arab allies in the Middle East. Binyamin Netanyahu, now presented with a U.S. ambassador positioned to the right of his own stated policy, will certainly care. For eight years Netanyahu has been playing his right-wing coalition partners off against the threat of a critical Obama administration. To Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu could say, “But I’ve got Obama and Shapiro breathing down my neck.” To Barack Obama, Netanyahu could say, “I’ve got Bennett breathing down my neck.” It was the perfect deadlocked strategy for Netanyahu’s diplomatic rope-a-dope, neither endorsing Bennett’s call for annexing the West Bank, nor America’s insistence on resolving the conflict with a two-state solution. Ever risk-averse, Netanyahu will now be forced to reveal his hand.
Custom dictates that ambassadorial appointments are not contested by Congress, and so it should be in this case. There is no doubt that the United States is about to discard decades of foreign policy brain freeze on Israel-Palestine for something completely different. But the question remains: who will set American policy in the Trump administration for Israel? Friedman? Tillerson? Donald Trump? As with so many of the President-elect’s appointments and contradictory pronouncements, only time will tell.
We hope that David Friedman will dispense with his partisan punditry and vicious condemnation of fellow Jews who disagree with his vision. He’s shown no sign yet that he possesses the skill set of a diplomat. For the sake of the United States and Israel, two countries he loves, we hope he rises to the honor of the job he is about to be granted.