from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Next Ambassador to Israel

December 18, 2016

Blog Post

President-Elect Trump’s choice of David M. Friedman as his ambassador to Israel has occasioned both appropriate news coverage, and a barrage of nasty, ignorant, politically biased comments.

Most of those comments (including the poison-pen editorial in The New York Times) have informed readers that Mr. Friedman is unfit for this post because he is a "bankruptcy lawyer" lacking diplomatic experience. I was previously unaware that being a "bankruptcy lawyer" was equivalent to a crime of moral turpitude, but that is in any event an odd description of Mr. Friedman. In fact he is one of the top lawyers in that field in the United States, year after year being so listed in articles about the very best American lawyers. The New York Times tells us that he has since 1994 been a partner at a firm called Kasowitz, Benson, Torres, & Friedman, but does not bother to tell readers that he is in fact the Friedman of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres, & Friedman--a firm whose name was changed when he joined it, and which he has helped build to about 350 lawyers in seven cities. He is also a self-made man, the son of an Orthodox rabbi who came to the practice of law without the benefit of wealth or fancy connections.

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To the Times all that is irrelevant; presumably they would prefer a fellow at a white-shoe Wall Street firm whose father or grandfather had been a diplomat, who belonged to the right clubs, and who rather than soil himself with the actual practice of law opens doors and makes connections. But I doubt most Americans take that view, and Mr. Trump did not. I’ve met Mr. Friedman once; we connected because I have a son who works in the Kasowitz firm. What do you learn from one meeting? Only that you’re dealing with one smart cookie, and that his involvement with Israeli affairs for decades has given him a far better insight than the average diplomat.

Of course that Mr. Friedman is a "bankruptcy lawyer" is not his only, nor his primary, disqualification in the eyes of the Left. You may be sure that if he were a lawyer handling traffic violations but belonged to J Street, they would all be applauding. Their real problem is that Mr. Friedman’s views are anathema to them. He thinks J Street is actually an anti-Israel rather than a pro-peace organization, that settlements are not an obstacle to peace, and other terrible things. He even thinks the U.S. embassy should be moved to Jerusalem. That these views are apparently shared by the President-Elect and will be American policy is of course what really troubles the Times and others, and they label all these "extremist views" and call Mr. Friedman "dangerous."

It is also objected that Mr. Friedman’s views are not those of all Israelis, because he is a man of the Right. Of course, the Times and the Left never object when the United States sends an envoy who is on the Left; that’s considered being a good diplomat. In the George W. Bush years, Prime Minister Sharon complained repeatedly about the leftist leanings of the American envoy, and in other decades it was pretty obvious that Washington and the U.S. ambassador favored the Labor Party and were even working to drive out a Likud prime minister. I cannot recall complaints in The New York Times. 

I do not share all of Mr. Friedman’s views, but I am delighted that the United States will soon have an envoy who can do what the Israeli ambassador in Washington can do: call home and speak to the top guy. I’m very pleased that we’ll have an ambassador who has known the country to which he is accredited for decades and won’t need briefing books to learn its geography. I think it’s great that we’ll have someone deeply committed to Israel’s security (consider this story, told by a friend of his: "he decided to buy a home in Jerusalem on the day in 2002 that a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at Café Moment, a popular bar in the city, killing 11 Israelis.") and to its well-being (he organized a fund that built a village in the Negev for disabled Jewish and Bedouin kids).

Traditional diplomat? Not at all. On the right? For sure. And, brilliant lawyer and deeply committed Zionist. He will have to forge new relationships with Israeli Arabs and Israeli leftists, figure out how to interact with the State Department and other parts of the United States Government, and learn more about Israel’s relations with Russia, and with Egypt and Jordan. So would any new envoy. But they would not come to the position with the knowledge and commitment or the sheer intellectual power that Friedman brings, nor would they have the total confidence of the President of the United States. The coming years could bring more tumult in Arab lands, attacks on Israel by ISIS or Hezbollah, a succession crisis in Ramallah, or even a new Israeli prime minister. Israel and the United States are very much better off when the American ambassador can do far more than deliver messages from Washington, and can instead bring to the U.S. Government and right to the Oval Office his considered analyses of the worst problems-- and the best solutions.

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