A Man of Consequence
One thought kept occurring to me as I read and enjoyed David Friedman’s account (“Sledgehammer”) of his years as the United States Ambassador to Israel: Friedman is arguably the most consequential ambassador that the US has ever had to any country in its history. There have been famous ambassadors, usually because they were celebrities appointed to these positions for political reasons having no diplomatic backgrounds at all, but none were consequential. George F. Kennan, anonymously authored the famous “Long Telegram” that created the containment policy that shaped US-Soviet relations for decades and was later celebrated for it, but that was several years before he became US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Most ambassadors just execute the policy they are given and try to improve trade, cultural or diplomatic relations, or put out fires, between the two countries.
David Friedman stands alone as the most consequential ambassador in American history. That is because he not only shaped US foreign policy to Israel but he helped execute a sharp reversal of America’s policy in ways that benefited the United States, Israel and the Middle East. In retrospect of even just a few years, those were amazing achievements, which to be sure, he credits President Trump, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and others who worked on it. But as ambassador he was the driving force.
Under Friedman’s watch, gone were the days when the State Department would lament “violence on both sides” when Israel was the victim of Arab terror and responded forcefully or preempted such attacks. Gone were the days when the Palestinians received generous American funding regardless of their nefarious conduct, duplicity, support for terror, subsidizing terrorists, and inimicality to American interests or values. Gone were the days when Palestinians were given a veto over US foreign policy initiatives with its friend Israel or its allies in the region. Gone were the days when the US feared the reaction of the “Arab street” – meaning, the most violent actors in the region, even if it was not really the “Arab street” – if America recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital city, moved its embassy there, recognized the Golan Heights, unequivocally supported Israel’s right of self defense, closed down the PLO mission in the US and its consulate in Yerushalayim, isolated the PA diplomatically, dampened the ardor for the two-state illusion, etc. Gone were the days when Israel could not enter into agreements with other Arab countries with which it has shared interests and no basis for hostility, all because the Palestinians did not like it.
Those were sea changes in American foreign policy, and none came easy. The proof is the ferocious resistance each of these changes ignited in the State Department, whose policy towards Israel remained essentially unchanged for a half century trapped as it was in circular reasoning, illogic, assertions without evidence, wishful thinking and occasionally overt hostility to the Jewish national home. Many presidents have learned over the years that the “striped-pants set” (as Truman, who also suffered this, derisively termed them) in the State Department conducted their own foreign policy whether or not it coincided with that of the President.
Friedman made clear to the first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson who embraced the traditional State mindset, that Friedman responds to the President and executes his wishes, not those of State. It not only made for contentious exchanges with State before Mike Pompeo became the Secretary and wholeheartedly endorsed the shift in policy, it also almost derailed his nomination. Friedman became ambassador only after winning confirmation by a razor-thin margin and enduring vicious and malevolent personal attacks from Democrats.
Fortunately for the reader, Friedman spares none of his critics. He was accused of being a “right-wing supporter of settlements” (horrors!), and an opponent of the two-state delusion (double horrors!!). New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand challenged him privately as to the propriety of American providing “humanitarian aid” in abundance to Israel whose people “live well,” and so little money to Gaza. She apparently was unaware that the US provides zero humanitarian aid to Israel. New York’s other Senator, Chuck Schumer, the self-styled “shomer” of Israel, told Friedman he is a “pretty good guy” but could not vote to confirm him. “I’m not giving Trump the win. Sorry.”
New Jersey’s Senator Cory Booker, whom Jews gush over (like the two above) because he patronizingly tosses Hebrew phrases at them even while voting to allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons with US money, told Friedman “yihiyeh b’seder,” it will all be good – in private. When the hearings started and the cameras switched on, he attacked Friedman for all the pain he caused and for the “ugly words” he used (Friedman had castigated J Street for their opposition to Israel’s right of self-defense during one of the Gaza wars in vituperative language that invoked self-hating Jews during the Holocaust). And Booker then voted against confirmation. One Jewish congresswoman urged Friedman to promise that the US embassy would not be moved to Yerushalayim – even though she had repeatedly voted in favor of moving the embassy. Did I mention that politicians are deceitful or is that a redundancy?
His relationship with Donald Trump went back decades; Friedman was his bankruptcy lawyer in a number of failed deals. It is fair to say that he saw Trump as sort of a lovable rogue with a history of hondling merchants and suppliers and threatening to withhold any payment after the work was done. (He doesn’t mention it but this approach failed once when Trump realized he was dealing with one vendor who was mob-related.) In an amusing anecdote, Trump’s approach also failed with Friedman when after one deal closed, Trump tried to re-negotiate the legal fee, not realizing that Friedman (anticipating this “technique”) had already taken his fee from the money distributed at closing. Despite all that, it was clear that Trump always had Israel’s best interests in mind. It was also clear that Friedman wanted only one thing from Trump’s victory: the ambassadorship to Israel so that both countries could benefit from the planned policy changes. It worked.
Yet, it was complicated and controversial at times. In a vignette not related in the book, it seems that Mike Pompeo made a practice of inviting every new ambassador to his office, taking him to the big round globe near his desk, and asking the ambassador to point to the country he now represents. Invariably, the new diplomat would find the country on the globe to which he had been dispatched and point to it. And Pompeo would turn the globe, point to the United States, and say “this is the country you represent, and don’t forget that.”
Well, Friedman was routinely accused by his enemies at State and other Arabists of representing Israel to the detriment of America. He unabashedly visited the Kotel (duchaning there – he is a kohen – at every opportunity) and Judea and Samaria. He accompanied the President to the Kotel, something which was supposed to be outlandish. The dual loyalty canard was raised. And in one acrimonious encounter, a State staffer admonished Friedman and told him: “Don’t be so Jewish. You represent the United States of America. Tone down the Judaism in your work.” Friedman furiously lambasted him for the thought, and for using language he would never use towards any other ethnic group. Such was life in the big leagues.
It is incontrovertible that Friedman represented America, and not Israel, but he did perceive that what was good for Israel was generally good for America. The Abraham Accords were the most prominent outcome of that notion and it is also true that America’s standing in the Middle East improved dramatically compared to what it was under Obama, and even today under Biden, when the US is again perceived as an unreliable ally.
How consequential was David Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel? He was instrumental in effecting such momentous changes in American foreign policy that even the Biden State Department is finding it nearly impossible to reverse all of them, and not for lack of trying. And it came from taking a fresh look at what had failed and not simply repeating it and what might work and nurturing it. It came from loving America and Israel, and appreciating what two essentially decent countries could accomplish working together.
America, Israel and the world are in a better place because of it. That is a man of consequence.