In a Rosh Hashanah interview from his new office in Jerusalem, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman wishes the people of Israel continued growth, together with the United States.
A massive painting depicting the biblical “sin of the spies” hangs in the modest office of U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. “The spies didn’t lie,” Friedman explains his choice of this particular image to decorate the first ever U.S. ambassador’s office in the city of Jerusalem.
“When the 10 spies returned from land of Israel to the people who were waiting for them in the desert, they described the absolute truth,” Friedman explains. “So what was the sin? It was their lack of vision. And I promised myself one thing. I would have vision.”
It has only been about 15 months since Friedman, 60, assumed the role that he had eyed since early in U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign – ambassador to Israel. Despite his relatively short time in office, it is safe to say that during his brief term, and in many ways thanks to him, not only is there clearly a vision, it is also being applied. Relations between Israel and the U.S. have grown closer than ever and the bilateral cooperation is unprecedented. This includes an end to the critical discourse that once emanated from the American administration against Israel; the shattering of the mendacious Palestinian propaganda – both in reference to the settlements and to the exaggerated numbers of “Palestinian refugees”; an impenetrable shield of American defense at the U.N., including an American withdrawal from UNESCO and the Human Rights Council; unequivocal support for Israel’s right to defend itself and carry out offensive strikes in Syria and in Gaza; the placement of the Iranian threat at the top of the American agenda and relentless efforts to quash the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement; and above all else, the official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the relocation of the American embassy there. Incidentally, Friedman had made a personal vow to complete the embassy move within a year of taking office – and he did it with one day to spare.
The interview with Friedman is a good opportunity to hear from one of Trump’s closest confidants why this unusual figure is so supportive of Israel. “He sees Israel really as miraculous or near miraculous. A miraculous nation in that it is able, in the neighborhood in which it lives, with all the security threats, to flourish and in some respects to lead the world,” he says.
“Israel is maybe behind the United States the number two player in the world in cybersecurity, which is arguably the most important area for national defense that exists right now,” he continues. “An economy that’s booming, that is 10 or 15 times greater than its neighbors’. It’s managed to come up with massive amounts of energy that nobody expected. Despite the incredible diversity of its population, both within the Jewish community and outside to Arabs and Christians, it manages to maintain a noisy but robust democracy that works.
“Israel is a tremendous friend to the United States. It provides the United States with assistance that, in some respects, no other country can provide. Look what it did with Iran, what it discovered with the Iran warehouse. Nobody else was able to accomplish that. There are things that I can’t talk about specifically, but things where Israel has identified threats and helped us to eliminate those threats, that would have struck on our own soil. On American soil.
“So my point is to say that for a country the size of Israel, surrounded by all these threats that it has to face, where there is really no other democratic nation in the region, to be so successful and to direct its success and its friendship to such a great extent to the United States, back and forth, I think he [Trump] notices just how special it is and he admires it. He’s someone who admires accomplishments. He likes to win, he’s very good at winning, he likes people who win, he thinks that success breeds more success and he knows how difficult it is to succeed, so I think he has greater admiration for what Israel has accomplished, maybe even more than some Israelis.”
The “higher price” question
Friedman, an accredited attorney specializing in bankruptcy and real estate, provided his legal services to Trump during one of the worst crises that befell the mogul’s business. The two have been collaborating ever since. Few people know that when Friedman was mourning his father’s passing, Trump braved a particularly heavy New York snowstorm, when no one else dared step outside, to comfort his friend. While Friedman, too, had comforted Trump when his own father passed away, he was moved by Trump’s heroic efforts to return the favor in such inclement weather. When Friedman insists that Trump is a “man of his word,” he is referring to this noble act among others.
The deep friendship between the two men prompted Trump to appoint Friedman as the ambassador, just as he had pledged to do. The appointment process wasn’t easy, particularly since the Reform movement, headed by Richard Jacobs, and the J Street lobby invested unprecedented efforts into preventing Friedman from being appointed. Shamefully, this was the first time in American history that anyone objected to the appointment of an ambassador selected by the administration, as non-Jewish senators noted during Friedman’s confirmation. But Friedman, a clever Jew, learned the rules of the game and sidestepped the minefield of the U.S. Senate. He even magnanimously decided to engage in dialogue with both Jacobs and J Street after he was named ambassador, despite their efforts against him.
Now, on the eve of the new Jewish year, Friedman invited Israel Hayom into his modest office for an interim summary. I was delighted to punch the words “U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem” into my GPS on my way to the interview. Friedman may no longer get a kick out of it, but he does make sure to take a photo with most of his visitors at the elaborate stone decoration at the entrance of the embassy.
Q: So what happens here in the day-to-day? Is this an embassy? A consulate? When will we have a fully functioning embassy here in Jerusalem?
“It’s definitely an embassy. It’s an embassy because this is where I work. You’re in my office, there’s no hiding that. We have about 60 people working on visas and passports, we have a smaller number of people working on some security issues. We have a guard force – it’s over 100 people right now. We are migrating the embassy slowly, in different phases.
“We’re going to start breaking ground in about a week or two on the next phase, which will maybe double the size of the space right now for the professionals who work in Tel Aviv to start moving over. We’ll probably move over 15-20 people within a year. And then we’re going to keep growing here and shrinking there until it’s complete, but it’s already very much an operating, functioning embassy.”
Q: Politics don’t go only in one direction. Do you think that there is a possibility that a future administration will reverse the decision to recognize Jerusalem and relocate the embassy back to Tel Aviv?
“I really can’t see that happening, no matter what party is in control. In order for an administration to reverse this, they would have to conclude that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel and Tel Aviv is. I think that would be a far more controversial thing to do than what the president did. It would be completely at odds with reality and I don’t believe that there is any American politician of any party – of no party – who would take a position that is completely contrary to reality. So I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Q: That brings me to a topic that was in the headlines last month – the “high price” that the president mentioned. Could you clarify the remark? Now that the administration has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, will Israel be expected to pay a high price in peace talks with the Palestinians?
“First thing, the president didn’t say ‘high price’ – listen to his words carefully. He said ‘higher price.’ It’s not ‘high price.’ In this part of the world, you say high price you think one government will say to another ‘if these attacks don’t end, there’ll be a high price to pay’ or something. That means something very different than a higher price.
“What it simply means is that if we’re fortunate enough to be at a point where the parties are negotiating, since the U.S. began this with a very good faith effort in Israel’s direction, the hope is that Israel will take that into account and reciprocate with the same level of good faith that it received. That’s all it means.
“Hopefully Israel will take it into account as something that it benefited from and would be willing to factor that into its calculations. High price is something very different, and it’s not what the president said.”
Q: So if I understand you correctly, you’re saying the price depends on Israel’s good will. It’s not that the U.S. will impose demands on Netanyahu or on Israel.
“That’s correct. I guess you can look at it this way – is it reasonable to expect that Israel would be somewhat more willing to trust the United States as a good faith mediator now after the embassy has been moved? I think that the answer of course is yes. It was a major, courageous, important move by the United States. I think that’s all the president was saying as well. In that world, we would hope to get reciprocal consideration, but no specific demand. No demand, frankly, of any kind. There is absolutely no quid pro quo. The National Security Adviser [John] Bolton said this a few days ago, there’s absolutely no quid pro quo expected of Israel in exchange for the embassy move.”
Q: You read the Israeli media, so you know that once every few weeks there is panic that the president is going to change his mind and become tough with Israel or start making demands. You’ve known president Trump for many years. Is such a scenario possible? That he’ll become upset with Netanyahu and begin being tough with him like he is with the Palestinians?
“Unfortunately, Israel has become very used to getting bad news from the international community. Israelis are comfortable in the world of bad news because they think ‘ok, we know how to deal with this stuff.’ It’s not their fault, but unfortunately they’re not as used to getting good news.
“So when they receive good news there’s an obsession, this isn’t going to last, what’s going to go wrong? I’m not going to predict the future or take this conversation into specifics, but there is absolutely nothing that the United States is planning that would be what the Israelis would consider bad news in compensation for the embassy move. I understand why a country like Israel, which is a small country, it doesn’t have a lot of friends, it’s used to being disappointed by its allies, including under the last administration. I understand why they might be thinking something’s got to go wrong here. But honestly, there’s nothing that is being considered that I think would fall under that category.”
“We don’t tell Israel what to do”
When Friedman talks about the expectation of Israeli “good will” in gratitude for the relocation of the embassy, I ask him to clarify the American position on another controversial point – construction in the settlements. The fact is that Israel places strict restrictions on construction in the Jewish settlements, but is it because of an American demand, or is it that voluntary “good will” that Friedman was talking about? The answer here, unsurprisingly, is as complex as the interpretation of the “higher price” comment.
“Let’s be clear about a few things. We don’t tell Israel what to do and what not to do. It’s a sovereign country and they have to make those decisions. They don’t need to seek permission from the United States. So when settlements are announced or planned, U.S. consent is not an element of that process.
“But we do have an open relationship and a good faith relationship, we talk about these plans and we do so from the perspective that the president expressed early on in his presidency – that settlements are not an obstacle to peace but if unrestrained settlement expansion continues, mathematically speaking, there will be much greater limits on territory that could be given to Palestinians.
“So to preserve that option there should be some balance. The Israeli government has taken our concerns into account, as you, I’m sure, have noticed, there have not been American reactions to the quarterly settlement planning. That’s because they have a sense of what we think is reasonable and they’ve taken those concerns into account.”
Q: And if Israel were to say, for example, that it wants to build a contiguous corridor in east Jerusalem, or between east Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, to promote the Israeli interests, would the U.S. administration accept it?
“That’s a hypothetical question. I think anything that Israel would present to the United States as being in their interest, in the interest of regional stability, in the interest of peace, of making the relationship between our two countries stronger, we owe it to them to listen. And then I think we would express our views, if we had views, and then the Israelis would have to make a decision. It’s Israel’s decision. It’s always Israel’s decision.”
Q: From your answer I can infer that no such plan has been presented to the administration. It’s not that Israel has said we want to build but the U.S. imposed restrictions.
“You’re asking me to read the minds of the Israeli government officials who present the plans. They come to us, they let us know what they’re planning to do, we discuss it, and then they make a decision on how to proceed. So, I wouldn’t venture a guess on whether they wanted more or less or had different plans going into these discussions. I couldn’t answer your question.”
Q: The question is whether you go over the construction plans item by item, location by location, as previous administrations did, or not even go into it at all.
“The answer is somewhere in the middle there. We’re certainly not getting into the kind of detail of checking every house and every neighborhood. But we’re getting an overall picture and we’ve had an understanding since early 2017 as to what the overall strategy would be for development, which we thought was reasonable, and we look at it and we see if it’s consistent with that strategy, and we have conversations. We never tell them, ‘You must pull this out.’ If we have an issue with something we say, ‘Do you really need to go this far? Can you build closer in to the existing property lines?’ Maybe there’s a reason why they can, maybe there’s a reason why they can’t. It’s not one size fits all. It’s an overall discussion. At the end of the discussion, all I can tell you is that the record speaks for itself. We haven’t gone out and challenged any particular planning that they’ve been announcing.”
Trump isn’t fighting with the entire world
Last month, National Security Adviser John Bolton said that the Trump administration was not discussing possible U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Friedman explains that Bolton’s remark “was simply a statement of fact. It’s simply not on the list of things that are happening right now.”
“It’s not that the United States is unwilling to consider it. It also doesn’t mean that the United States is in favor of it. It just means that it’s not on the current agenda between Israel and the United States as a matter of priority.
“I can’t imagine a circumstance where the Golan Heights will be returned to Syria. I cannot imagine frankly a circumstance where the Golan Heights is not a part of Israel forever. There’s not even an indigenous population in the Golan Heights seeking autonomy. So I think you’d put Israel at a great security disadvantage by giving up the high ground of the Golan Heights.
“And needless to say, I can’t think of a less deserving person to receive this kind of reward than [Syrian President] Bashar Assad. So there are a whole host of reasons why I would expect the status quo to remain, but that doesn’t change the reality that it just hasn’t been talked about in this administration.”
Q: Will the administration consider it in the future?
“It’s certainly possible that it could happen. Yes.”
Q: And on another topic having to do with Israel’s northern border: If neither the U.S. nor Russia can get Iran out of Syria, who can? The implication is that Israel will have no choice but to fight against the Iranians in Syria alone, because they won’t leave on their own.
“Well, I think that you’ve identified the players – Russia, the United States, Israel – I don’t think anyone expects Syria to invite them to leave. So you’re right. As you know, this is a matter of real concern to the president. It was something he spoke about with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in Helsinki. It’s a matter of great concern to Bolton, to [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo, and it’s a process that is ongoing on many many levels. I can’t discuss the specifics beyond that, but it is completely unacceptable to the United States that Iran remain in Syria. We’re working on lots of different pathways to hopefully achieve that goal.”
Q: The U.S. is now in the process of imposing tough sanctions on Iran. But where is all this taking us? They don’t want a new nuclear agreement, and they don’t want to negotiate with you. So what’s going to happen?
“I don’t know. I’m not clairvoyant. I’m not a prophet. I can’t tell you what will happen in the future. We believe in the sanctions, we believe in increasing the sanctions, and we think that the sanctions will eventually lead to Iran stopping its nuclear program, stopping its malign activities, stopping its sponsorship of terror, stopping its manufacture of ballistic weapons. We think pressure is needed and we’ll continue to do that.
“I think we have a strategy, we have goals, we have things we want to accomplish and we’re going to try to accomplish them. The means by which they’ll be accomplished, I think, will play themselves out.”
Q: I want to ask a general question about American foreign policy. Sometimes it seems as though the president is at odds with the entire world. He’s fighting the EU, normally considered a U.S. ally, he’s fighting China, Iran, Russia of course. His campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” Do you think this approach is really making America great again?
“Yeah, I think so. You have to divide these up – first of all, he’s certainly not fighting with the entire world. I mean his issues in every case are designed to protect America against being mistreated or being taken advantage of. So with the EU the issue is NATO. They’re not paying their fair share for NATO. They’re the ones in harm’s way, they’re the ones closest to Russia and the Americans are paying a greater percentage of their GDP. It doesn’t mean you’re having a fight, you’re having a disagreement. I think most countries agree that the European NATO allies have gotten a pretty good deal from America and maybe it’s time to get to a fairer place.
“Iran, we talked about. It’s the largest, most dangerous state sponsor of terrorism in the world. I’d expect you’d be pretty critical of any president who did not challenge Iran’s misbehavior, and certainly in the aftermath of the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal]. The premise was that once they are allowed back into the community of nations they will become more civilized, and we’ve seen just the opposite. Whether it’s Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, they’ve been anything but. Certainly much more threatening. That’s not fighting with the world, that’s fighting with the largest state sponsor of terrorism.
“China is a tremendous adversary when it comes to trade. It doesn’t extend to that many other issues, there are some other issues as well, but when it comes to trade, the president made it very clear during the campaign that the trade relationships are unfair. He’s working to address that. These are all things that make America stronger.
“Not only is it not inconsistent with making America great, these are exactly the things he promised to do to make America stronger economically. Now the American economy is booming. The last number I heard was 4.6% GDP growth. That’s massive. It’s unheard of in the last 15 years – 4% unemployment, relatively low interest rates, I mean we haven’t had an economy like this in maybe a generation. So he obviously has to deal with the various countries in the world as he sees them, but all from the perspective of strengthening America.”
A year of growing together
Amid a host of foreign policy challenges, the U.S. president is also facing quite a few challenges at home, with some of his closest associates turning state’s evidence. Friedman, formerly Trump’s attorney, gives his perspective on the controversies:
“I can tell you, as a lawyer, I think the media has this completely wrong. On Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. Because what do they have in common? They don’t pay taxes. That’s what they didn’t do. They don’t pay taxes and they lie to banks. This has nothing to do with the president. I think that the media has distorted what’s going on.
“The special prosecutor was hired to determine whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. It’s been a very long time, millions and millions of dollars spent, and there’s no evidence of that having happened. There is evidence of a couple people working for Trump, in unrelated businesses and in years past, having nothing to do with Trump or his campaign, not having paid their taxes. That is, to me, completely unrelated to the issue of the special prosecutor.”
Q: With all the investigations and everything that is happening in America right now, do you think Trump will win the 2020 election?
“I think he will, but more importantly, they have online betting markets on who is going to win in 2020. The odds that President Trump will win, I just saw in the paper, are three to two. The next closest I think was 10 to 1. I’m not suggesting there’s a marketplace for elections, but if you want to see what people really think, one way is to see where they put their money, and overwhelmingly people think that the president is going to win in 2020. I certainly do.”
Q: We talked about internal Jewish divides. I’ve heard you speak about the importance of unity among Jews and I’ve heard you say that today, being anti-Israel is the new anti-Semitism. The problem is that these anti-Israel views – this new anti-Semitism – is rampant among Jews themselves, many of the in the U.S. What’s your take on this?
“I think there’s a danger on the far left. Unfortunately, there are members of the Jewish community who fit into that far-left camp. I worry about that. I think what Americans can do is to encourage people to visit Israel – I think visiting Israel is the single most important factor in getting people to at least see it clearly. There are always going to be some people who just don’t see things the same way and don’t agree. But I believe that within the Jewish community, the pro-Israel community, with all the different opinions, there is still a core belief that I think unites people more than it divides them.
“We have to find ways to emphasize that which unites us, and we have to be honest and have candid conversations about the points of division, but from a perspective that we’re all in this together and let’s find the best solution for the most people. The conversation has gotten a little shrill, a little angry, over the last few years. I’m not of the view that we have to eliminate the debate, because it’s not possible and it’s not healthy, but we should try to bring down the anger and the hostility. Because it stops people from hearing what the other person says.
“I think that’s important in America to do a better job. I try to make it a practice to spend as much time as I can with groups that don’t necessarily agree with me so that at least they can understand my point of view.”
Q: How do you do that?
“I’ve met with J Street three times. I didn’t go there thinking that I was going to meet with people who agree with me. I knew what I was getting into. But look, they came to Israel, they’re entitled to an honest debate, and I hope I gave them one.”
Q: What is the implication of the recent U.S. decision to defund UNRWA? Does the U.S. State Department statement about “UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries” mean that the U.S. will no longer accept this expansion?
“UNRWA is a critically flawed organization. It doesn’t advance regional peace and actually perpetuates the conditions that make peace even harder to achieve. As such, the U.S. doesn’t see how any additional investment in the agency will yield a worthy return for the American taxpayers.”
Q: What would you like to wish the people of Israel for Rosh Hashanah?
“We always like to say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Now we’re saying, ‘This year in Jerusalem.’ But that’s not the end of it. Both Israel and the United States have moved closer to each other and accomplished a lot in really important ways in the last year. What I’d like to wish the Israeli people and the American people is let this just be the beginning of more years of growing together, being more connected, in values, in our goals, in our accomplishments, in our collective ability to create a better, brighter, more prosperous and more peaceful world.”