December 19, 2016 - US-Israel in the Trump era: Ambassador Friedman and a US embassy in Jerusalem


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses whether President-elect Trump's selection of David Friedman as US ambassador to Israel will be the "game-changer from hell;" what happens if the embassy is really moved to Jerusalem; what should Trump be doing about the embassy; and how the ambassadorial appointment and the Jerusalem embassy issues factor into the existing divides and conflicts within world Jewry.

Q. President-elect Trump has selected David Friedman to be US ambassador to Israel. Friedman and the Trump team assert that the US embassy will soon be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Friedman actively supports the settlements, rejects the two-state solution, and calls J-Street “worse than capos”. A game-changer from hell?

A. Potentially more than one game-changer.

There are three heavy issues here. One is the appointment of an ambassador who rejects the two-state, anti-settlements policies of previous presidents. A second issue is moving the embassy to Jerusalem. And a third is the growing divide or divides within Israeli and American Jewry that these decisions appear to exacerbate.


Q. Start with the Friedman appointment.

A. It is sad to note that this is actually the most “lite” of the three issues. While Trump has zigzagged in his pronouncements regarding the Israeli-Palestinian question--at one point recently expressing a genuine appetite for trying to resolve the conflict through “the ultimate deal”--the overall tenor of his statements and recent appointments has clearly been reactionary on Israel. We recall that a few weeks ago rumor had it that Trump would appoint Mike Huckabee as his ambassador to Israel, and Huckabee is probably no less pro-settlement and anti-two-state than Friedman. To the extent that Friedman’s appointment is not merely a mindless thank-you gesture to a faithful supporter, adviser and tax lawyer, it has to be considered a credible statement of the president-elect’s mindset regarding Israel--one that should surprise no one.

The West Bank settlers will love Friedman. So will PM Netanyahu, even though Friedman’s credo is ostensibly contrary to Netanyahu’s repeatedly declared support for a two-state solution. Ostensibly, because Netanyahu’s coalition preferences and actions in fact reflect support for a position close to Friedman’s. But Friedman as ambassador to Israel will not make policy. In Israel’s case, that prerogative will to a large extent be in the hands of Trump’s secretary of state and secretary of defense appointees, Mssrs. Tillerson and Mattis. One is an oil man and a friend of Russia’s President Putin; the other has warned about an apartheid Israel. Neither seems particularly attuned to supporting the settlements or supporting Israel at all.

Accordingly, the most likely outcome is what we suspected all along: that the Trump administration will not tread anywhere near where its more activist predecessors tried and failed. It will not actively push a two-state solution. It will look the other way as Netanyahu maneuvers Israel, willy-nilly, toward a one-state reality that negates the country’s Zionist and democratic nature. Its ambassador will happily inaugurate new settlement neighborhoods while Washington shrugs.

From that standpoint, the Friedman appointment is a throw-away gesture to Trump’s dedicated right-wing Orthodox Jewish supporters. It will be provocative and disruptive among Israeli and American Jews alike. But it will be less incendiary among Palestinians and other Arabs, if only because they have already resigned themselves to a US administration that at least at the declarative level caters to the Israeli right.


Q. And if the embassy is really moved to Jerusalem and this president makes good on a promise nearly all presidential candidates have made but not kept for decades?

A. Here we will encounter a sharp contrast to the issue of Ambassador Friedman. His appointment is divisive among Jews. But moving the embassy--indeed, the appeal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move all embassies there--has long drawn at least some degree of support from nearly all Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. It is the Arab and broader Muslim worlds that will react angrily and probably violently to the opening of a US embassy in Jerusalem--even in West Jerusalem.

Accordingly, Israeli security circles and moderate right-wingers will conceivably caution against this move lest it incite another intifada, or worse. Netanyahu himself might privately counsel Trump to go slow on moving the embassy lest it provoke an Arab backlash and compromise the progress Netanyahu believes he has made in recent years in advancing Israel’s strategic relations with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Here a number of factors are likely to come into play. Even assuming the Trump administration moves the US embassy to West Jerusalem, which has been Israel’s capital since 1948, this will nevertheless shatter the status quo maintained since then by nearly the entire international community. The few Central American states that once had embassies in West Jerusalem left under Arab and international pressure in the years after 1967 when Israel unilaterally annexed an expanded East Jerusalem.

The US maintains consulates in both Jewish West Jerusalem and largely Arab East Jerusalem. The East Jerusalem consulate functions de facto as America’s diplomatic representation to the Palestinian Authority and the East Jerusalem consul general as America’s “ambassador to Palestine”. This suggests a host of intriguing and innovative diplomatic schemes for compensating the Palestinians for moving the embassy--but only if the Trump administration embraces the two-state solution and even goes a step further, recognizing the state of Palestine.

That is not likely to happen under Trump. It is particularly inconceivable during the impending fiftieth year since the Six-Day War and the 1967 annexation, which the Netanyahu government intends to celebrate as the central theme of the golden jubilee: “United Jerusalem, eternal capital of Israel”. Still, the Trump team’s promise to move the embassy does not clarify whether this would involve formally violating international law which since 1947 recognizes Jerusalem as a corpus separatum, whether the US would recognize Israel’s capital in West Jerusalem only or in “united Jerusalem”, and whether the entire embassy would be moved to Jerusalem or only a symbolic US embassy presence installed there.

If the Trump administration opts to build a new embassy building in West Jerusalem--the land has long been available--that could conceivably delay Arab reaction. A groundbreaking ceremony is not likely to be the same in Arab eyes as an embassy housewarming. Construction can be drawn out and delayed. Netanyahu, whose policy initiatives are adjusted on a daily basis in accordance with his assessment of Israeli and international opinion, might counsel such a move on the assumption that, in his reality, a few years postponement of regional mayhem is as good as eternity.


Q. So what should Trump be doing about the embassy?

A. Virtually all Israelis and all Jews seek affirmation of Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital. Wise Israelis and Americans understand that the way to accomplish this is to reach agreement with the Palestinians, with broader Arab blessings, that creates a Palestinian state with some part of East Jerusalem as its capital. At that point the entire world could open two embassies in Jerusalem with Israeli and Arab blessings. That is why for the past two decades Republican and Democratic administrations have repeatedly waived a 1995 congressional mandate to move the embassy.

A break by Trump with this practice risks launching a prolonged period of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere and a marked deterioration in Arab-Israel and Arab-US relations. This is liable to transpire alongside many other provocative dimensions of Trump’s prospective administration and against a backdrop of an Arab Middle East that is already chaotic. Considering how often and unashamedly he zigzags, Trump should have no difficulty in wiggling out of this disastrous commitment.


Q. How do the ambassadorial appointment and the Jerusalem embassy issues factor into the existing divides and conflicts within world Jewry?

A. These two issues are likely to exacerbate the divide in Israel between the now dominant right-religious pro-settler mainstream on the one hand and the peace camp and Arab community on the other. In America, where Jewish supporters of the Israeli right-religious mainstream are a minority concentrated primarily among Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews who backed Trump, and the majority are non-Orthodox liberals who tend to vote democratic, the Israel-related hawk-dove divide is likely to grow. It will be exacerbated by conflicts not related to the Palestinians like the denial by Israel of the right of non-Orthodox Jews to pluralistic practices of worship at the Old City Western Wall and the emergence among American Jews of non-Israel-related controversies like charter schools.

When we juxtapose these schisms, we begin to approach a new reality in which the new right-religious Israeli mainstream is supported by, and relates almost exclusively to, that increasingly activist minority of American Jews who support Trump, David Friedman, Orthodox Jewish teachings, moving the embassy no matter what, and the settlements. In parallel, the American Jewish mainstream is liable increasingly to take its distance from Israel: physically, financially, spiritually and politically.

That is merely my assessment, as seen from Israel.