A lot has been written in the last week about Donald Trump’s choice for U.S. ambassador to Israel: David M. Friedman, a 57-year-old bankruptcy attorney who has worked with Trump for a number of years, and who holds Zionist and conservative views on issues relating to Israel.
Trump’s choice of Friedman does indicate that he intends to pursue a policy that will differ significantly from Obama’s. And it’s certainly a good call to expect a political “war” over that, as John Podhoretz does. The stake the American, Israeli, and larger Western left has driven into the long-running “two state solution” narrative can’t be extracted without some metaphorical bloodshed.
But while I sympathize with a level of exhaustion and annoyance at the prospect of this “war,” I also see what’s coming as a tremendous opportunity. Instead of approaching the Senate confirmation process for Friedman in a defensive light, it’s time to go on offense.
I don’t think we’ve had an incoming administration in my lifetime as likely as the Trump team to recognize this as an opportunity. I don’t agree with everything that comes out of this team. But it’s clear that these are out-of-the-box thinkers who don’t feel constrained to pretend that they are bound by Obama’s policies as if those policies represent long-established convention.
In the matters of Israel, the Undead “peace process,” and Middle East security in general, that’s a profoundly good thing. In the last eight years, we have lost our bearings and lost touch with how very far Obama has wandered from the base course of American statecraft sustained since 1945. I get a good laugh when I see pundits proclaiming that Trump is going to nail down the coffin on the Pax Americana and blow up the Middle East. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s unprecedented military access to the Middle East through Iran, China’s unopposed expansion into the South China Sea, the migrant crisis in Europe, the collapse of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya – these developments and more are what tell us the Pax already died, and the Middle East detonated, on Obama’s watch.
Deterioration of the international order occurred in large part (although not solely) because of Obama’s unorthodox policy approaches. Things we no longer think about, like his incontinent eagerness to sign a New START treaty with Russia that gave up key enforceability provisions, or his dropping Poland and Czech Republic abruptly on their keisters when he terminated the Bush missile defense plans, set the stage early for confusion and loss of confidence in U.S. security policy. Nothing has gotten better in the years since.
In a particularly telling instance, we mustn’t forget that Ben Rhodes, the man who famously orchestrated the Iran “deal” narrative (the “echo chamber”) for Obama, had a very definite vision for “creat[ing] the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey”; for beginning a “large-scale disengagement from the Middle East”; and for “radically reorienting American policy in the Middle East.”
All of which has, in fact, been set in motion – and all of which diverges dramatically from U.S. policy before 2009. There’s no old order left now for Donald Trump to blow up. It’s done.
On the matter of Israel and a resolution with the Palestinian Arabs, meanwhile, the Obama administration went beyond sustaining a relatively impartial course – a friendly stance toward Palestinian statehood, coupled with affirmation that Israel must be defensible, autonomous, and secure – to suffer under a seeming obsession with implementing a two-state solution. John Kerry’s dog-with-a-bone posture is not representative of what American policy ever was before Kerry became secretary of state. The sometimes unreasoning frenzy of the Obama administration on the peace process is an outlier, an episode of excess, not a measured continuation of previous policy.
So there is nothing for Trump and David Friedman to be defensive about. Instead of defense, the Republican Party should play offense, and act in the spirit of its 2016 party platform to air the debate over how U.S. policy on the superannuated peace process should evolve.
The Senate hearings on Friedman’s confirmation would be an excellent venue for framing a public debate. Trump can’t dictate the terms of that, but the Senate GOP leadership has a once-in-a-lifetime opening to do something big with this opportunity, in collaboration with the Trump White House. They can take charge of how Friedman is interrogated, and what ideas and words and vision he is asked to speak to.
John Podhoretz summarizes nicely what bothers Friedman’s opponents:
What horrifies those who will oppose Friedman isn’t his opinion of JStreet or his credentials, but the fact that he is an outspoken opponent of the two-state solution, a supporter of Israel’s settlements, and a believer that the law passed 20 years ago should be implemented that moves the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
But nothing dictates that the Senate Republicans let the confirmation process be about the anti-Zionist left’s brittle orthodoxies. Instead of letting the left define this moment with vapors and tears, they should use their senatorial privilege to talk about, precisely, why the GOP dropped the “two-state” language in its party platform in July 2016, and why that doesn’t mean there can’t be a two-state solution, but does mean that it’s no longer the unquestioned response to a catechism, or something to browbeat Israel with. Talk about alternative possibilities. Talk about what must underlie a two-state solution – and currently doesn’t.
Talk about the status of Jerusalem, and what U.S. policy has been and should be, and why the U.S. embassy should be there. Talk about settlements, and why they are not the root problem for all Middle Eastern security. The point isn’t to reach end-state conclusions on every issue, but to frame the debate. Craft it carefully, with party discipline; it shouldn’t become a free-for-all. But the guiding principle should be freedom from a straitjacket of orthodoxy. It shouldn’t be about fear of what David Friedman will say, but about hearing him speak and not being afraid.
No such debate has been allowed to resonate in public spaces for quite a long time. Get some rhetorical gumption going. Lay down positive markers. Suck up the oxygen. Cowboy up, dudes, and act like you won in 2016.
That’s the remarkable opportunity the selection of David Friedman is offering: to reset the American policy narrative on Israel. It’s a matter for rejoicing that Friedman is not a “safe,” conventional nomination. What great material to work with, at a time when leading with ideas can have an impact it hasn’t had for decades.