How Trump Would Shake Up Mideast Policy
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How Trump Would Shake Up Mideast Policy

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Like many Orthodox Jews here, David Friedman, a successful attorney who lives in the Five Towns, is an outspoken supporter of Israel who feels the Obama administration has been a disaster in terms of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

He is president of American Friends of Bet El, a community with a yeshiva on the West Bank, and is a columnist for the Israeli nationalist newspaper Arutz Sheva. He believes the two-state solution is a pipe dream and that Israeli annexation of the land is “certainly an option.”

What’s noteworthy about Friedman is that he has the trust, and ear, of Donald Trump, having known him in his capacity as a bankruptcy expert and friend over the last 15 years. He serves with Jason Greenblatt, an Orthodox attorney who is chief legal officer of the Trump Organization, as co-adviser on Israel issues for the Republican nominee’s campaign. Together they wrote the Israel section of the Republican Platform, which reinstated language recognizing Jerusalem as “the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state” and removed wording that called for a two-state solution.

If Trump is elected, Friedman is likely to be appointed U.S. ambassador to Israel, though he readily acknowledges he has no experience in diplomacy, professional politics or organizational Jewish life. Which fits into Trump’s style of relying on a trusted, loyal inner circle of establishment outsiders.

I met with Friedman last week in his spacious midtown office for an informal chat, and followed up with an on-the-record phone interview. He was cordial, confident and forthright in explaining why he felt Trump would be ideal for Israel and the U.S., and he did not seem concerned that a wide range of Mideast policy experts insist that any deviation from the two-state solution would be a calamity for all parties, infuriating the Palestinians and much of the world as Israel would become, in their eyes, a permanent occupier.

“Frankly, I find it surprising that people recoil at the very thought of considering any resolution other than the two-state solution, which seems so extraordinarily remote and hypothetical,” Friedman said. “It is discouraging and disappointing that those on the left are unwilling to even consider alternatives, though they pride themselves on the free exchange of ideas.”

He pointed out that the two-state solution has been tried repeatedly over the last several decades and failed because the Palestinian leadership is unwilling to accept a Jewish state in the region.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” Friedman said in reference to persistent calls on Israel to make tangible, territorial concessions in return for promises from the Palestinian side to end the violence. “Gaza ended up a disaster” when Israel withdrew in 2005, he noted, resulting in “the creation of a Hamas state with rockets raining down” on nearby Israeli towns like Sderot.

After the national trauma Israel suffered from the evacuation of its army and about 8,000 settlers from Gaza, the prospect of removing perhaps “hundreds of thousands” of Jewish residents from the West Bank is completely unrealistic, Friedman maintained.

“Not going to happen,” he said before softening and broadening his comment.  “Leaving aside the security issues and creating another terror state, the type of population shifts required [for a major evacuation] are impossible to achieve without destroying national unity.

“My advice to Trump, which is best for the U.S.,” he said, “is that it is not in our interest to weaken Israel. We want Israel as strong as possible.”

Friedman’s proposed message to the Palestinian leadership is threefold: “No. 1: Stop killing Israelis. No. 2: Begin to develop the kind of infrastructure that can demonstrate to the world that you can make and keep your commitments, and be a good neighbor. No. 3: Sit down with Israel [to negotiate] and think about coming up with a way in which people’s lives can best be served.”

Friedman says that may result in Palestinian statehood, but he indicates a Trump administration would be in no hurry to initiate yet another round of peace talks unless and until there were signs of positive change within the Palestinian leadership. To do so, he said, would simply raise expectations, noting that failed efforts in the past were followed by a sharp increase in Palestinian violence.

As for “baby steps” toward resolving the conflict, Friedman said he would support “anything that relieves tensions and allows Palestinians to be more productive, as long as it doesn’t hurt Israel’s security.”

The other major point Friedman brought up on the subject of the Palestinians was that, given the enormous buildup of more sophisticated rockets aimed at Israel, particularly from Hezbollah in Lebanon, if there is an outbreak of attacks during a Trump administration, “Israel won’t be held back — the U.S. won’t be tethering Israel to some hypothetical definition of proportionate or disproportionate military response.”

He was referring to comments from Obama administration spokespersons during past conflicts suggesting Israel was using too much force in countering offensives from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Trump approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Friedman said, is to proclaim full support for Israel and disfavor with the Palestinians. And, based on consultation with Jerusalem, possibly cutting off the Palestinian Authority financially.

Regarding the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump, in his speech to the AIPAC conference in March, first said he would tear up, and a few minutes later asserted he would monitor closely, Friedman did not clarify. But he noted that Trump admires Russian President Vladimir Putin and feels the two could “work together” to contain Iran’s aggression.

In all, Friedman’s views on Israel and the Mideast are a dream come true for those who believe Jerusalem can tough its way to enduring security, and a nightmare to adherents of the conventional wisdom that concessions are required for any hope of peace — stark choices for Zionist supporters. 

Gary@jewishweek.org

 

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