Tel Aviv Diary: Trump's Ambassador Pick Divides Israelis

Demonstrators protest against the election of Donald Trump as President in front of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 11, 2016. Marc Schulman asks, Will a newly-appointed U.S. ambassador with no experience in diplomacy and who has had strong ties with the Israeli settler movement spend the time to study the complexity of Israel's politics? Baz Ratner/reuters

Tel Aviv woke this morning to the announcement that President-elect Donald Trump has nominated David Friedman to be the new ambassador to Israel—his first ambassadorial pick.

Friedman, Trump's lawyer for many years, has been serving as his advisor on Israeli affairs. Friedman is a long-time supporter of Israel, who has been identified with right-wing views on Israel (being chairman of American Friends of Bet El, a West Bank institution).

In making the announcement, the Trump transition team tried to stress his more centrist activities:

Mr. Friedman has been a generous philanthropist to Jewish causes, including United Hatzalah of Israel, a nationwide volunteer service of first responders, providing aid to all injured Israelis, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, and Aleh Negev, one of the world's most advanced facilities for the care of severely disabled children.

Friedman is on the record with a number of statements that are outside the general Israeli/Jewish consensus. He has stated he does not support a two-state solution and seems to believe Israel should be able to annex the West Bank, with few demographic consequences.

Friedman has also compared Jewish critics of the Netanyahu administration to "Kappos," i.e., Jews who helped the Nazis in the concentration camps.

Related: Tel Aviv Diary: Bannon and an Anti-Semitic America

Left of center Jewish organizations reacted in horror. Jeremy Ben Ami, executive director of J-Street, tweeted: "Trump's pick of Friedman for Israel Amb is anathema to values that underlie US-Israel relationship. We'll fight this with all we've got."

Israeli government ministers have been silent, since they were ordered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to comment about anything relating to the new Trump administration.

Those not working in the government had no problem speaking up. Mark Zell, head of Republicans Overseas Israel, posted: "Republicans Overseas Israel congratulates David Friedman on his appointment as the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel and the first to sit in Jerusalem!"

Zell later wrote what a happy day it was. Yair Lapid, head of the opposition party Yesh Atid (currently polling neck-and-neck with the ruling Likud party), stated: "Look forward to working with Mr. Friedman, the new U.S. Ambassador and great friend of Israel, in his rightful office in our capital, Jerusalem."

Others are a little more skeptical and concerned. Although even left-of-center critics of the government do not seem to be as concerned as Ben Ami. A veteran senior intelligence officer who recently retired said: "The appointment shows the new administration is interested in opening of a new page in its relationship with the Israeli government."

However, he indicated apprehension in two areas: First, he felt this appointment might further hurt the relationship between Israel and the non-Orthodox Jewish community in America, which does not share many of Friedman's views.

Second, he expressed concern that an ambassador like Friedman "would eliminate checks and balances on the government's actions in the West Bank."

The analyst believed the Friedman appointment gave the Israeli government an unprecedented opportunity for solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, in conditions most favorable to Israel—although he doubted that the risk-averse Netanyahu would make use of this opportunity.

An American expat living in the center of the country, who defines himself as a supporter of the right-wing in Israel but did not vote for Trump, told me:

Considering the appointments of people with very unclear views on Israel, we don't know where they stand, like the Secretary of State, someone with decades of being close to Saudis and Gulf States, and the appointment of a Defense Secretary who may truly value Israel as ally, but has, at least once, raised concerns about supporting Israel ... having an ambassador who is so pro-Israel seems to me a possible opening for a warm hug (with tremendous diplomatic pressure to accept a bad deal), which Israel could find very hard to refuse.

I have always felt it is better to have American ambassadors to Israel who are less personally connected to Israel, so I wasn't thrilled with the appointment of the current ambassador, nor with this new one.

A long-time State Department employee who has served in Israel told me:

President-elect Trump's nominee to become the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel — like all U.S. ambassadors — is responsible for promoting U.S. foreign policy goals, as expressed by the President, the Secretary of State and State Department policy makers.

The U.S. commitment to a two-state solution is grounded in years of history that considers the interests of those directly involved — Israelis and Palestinians. It is premature to speculate on the changes the new president may make once he becomes aware of the regional complexities and the ramifications of his decisions.

In many ways, this last statement gets to the heart of the matter. Israel is a complicated place, not understood well by American Jewish supporters who make casual visits to the country.

Will a Trump administration, led by a man who has been proud of his ability to make complex decisions based on his gut, spend the time and effort to understand these complexities?

Will a newly appointed ambassador who has no experience in diplomacy and has had strong ties with the Israeli settler movement spend the time to study the complexity?

Friedman will be filling big shoes. Appointed by President Barack Obama, the current U.S. ambassador, Dan Shapiro, is immensely popular here. His knowledge of Hebrew and his willingness to be accessible to Israeli media has allowed him to be popular equally with both the Israeli right-wing and the left-wing.

Israelis now wonder—along with the rest of the world—whether what they have seen so far from President-elect Trump is part of a larger plan or just the actions of highly impulsive leader.

Marc Schulman is the editor of

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