Trump’s ambassador pick could drastically alter 2 of the thorniest issues in the US-Israel relationship

President-elect Donald Trump tapped bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman to serve as the US ambassador to Israel on Thursday, raising questions about how Friedman’s far-right views will upend Washington’s longstanding approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Friedman, who has no diplomatic experience, is a fierce opponent of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine that would create two independent states west of the Jordan river.

He has compared members of J-Street – a left-leaning advocacy group that supports a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict primarily via a two-state solution – to “kapos,” Jews who cooperated with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

“The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty,” Friedman wrote in June for Israeli media organization Arutz Sheva. “But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas – it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”

Friedman has also not opposed Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank – a practice that has been the source of significant tension between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And he wants the US to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal capital” instead of Tel Aviv, where the US embassy is currently located.

The diplomatic status of Jerusalem – a site of religious importance to Jews, Muslims, and Christians – is one of the most controversial subjects in the Middle East. The Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 Six Day War has been widely rejected by the international community, and most foreign embassies are based in Tel Aviv.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks to Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump during their meeting in New York, September 25, 2016.
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Reuters

Trump told Netanyahu during their meeting in September that he would recognize Jerusalem as the “undivided” capital of Israel.

Friedman’s positions have alarmed more left-wing Israelis and Israeli-Americans, who perceive them as an potential obstacle to peace between Israel and Palestine.

“It’s difficult to see how Friedman’s appointment is going to advance either peace or stability,” Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, told Business Insider on Friday.

“His views – advocating for Israeli annexation of the West Bank, unfettered settlement expansion, and a wholesale rejection of the two-state solution – place him on the extreme right of the spectrum not only in the U.S. but in Israel as well,” Koplow said.

“Assuming that his appointment is a signal that the Trump administration will support the policies that he advocates,” he added, “it is going to cause major problems with regional allies and provide cover for extremists on all sides.”

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Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu attends cabinet meeting in Jerusalem
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Thomson Reuters

Still, others are not convinced that Friedman’s appointment provides a signal that Trump will lead US-Israel policy down a far-right path.

“The Ambassador doesn’t set policy – he or she conveys policy,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice-president of research for the Washington, DC-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “So the idea that you have a right-wing representative doesn’t change much – it probably just means he’ll appeal more to the Israeli right, and maybe the center.”

Schanzer noted that while Friedman’s appointment is “possibly foretelling of policy” and understandably “troubling to proponents of a two-state solution,” it doesn’t necessary reflect Trump’s own views on the conflict or the region.

However, the Trump administration should actively avoid any abrupt policy shifts that could create tension or lead to violence and disruptions in diplomacy, Schanzer said. For that reason, any big changes the Trump administration wants to implement should be done very slowly and tactfully.

“Sequencing moves, messaging in advance, and working with allies and partners before making any major moves is what I would advise,” Schanzer said. “Otherwise, these moves have the potential to disrupt relations between more fragile partnerships like Jordan and Israel, or Israel and Saudi Arabia. It could also lead to the eruption of a third intifada.”

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Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas smiles during his arrival for an official visit at Khartoum Airport in Sudan
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Thomson Reuters

Still, some experts and advocates believe Friedman’s policy positions represent the kind of abrupt reversal on American policy toward Israel that could lead to the kind of unrest cited by Schanzer.

Daniel Levy, a left-leaning former Israeli peace negotiator, told The New York Times that Friedman’s commitment to relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is “ill-advised.” He said Friedman’s policies could “further embolden an already triumphalist settler elite,” which “is likely to cause headaches for American national security interests across the region and even for Israel’s own security establishment.”

Koplow, meanwhile, said Friedman’s positions are strikingly out of sync with policies “embraced by every president going back decades.”

“I think his appointment is a concerning development,” Koplow said, “and given what he has said and written in the past, I hope that his views – which contradict Trump’s own statements about wanting to resolve the conflict rather than exacerbate it – do not constitute the final word on what we can expect from the next White House.”