President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination last week of his attorney and longtime friend, David Friedman, to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel has elicited sharp reactions, for obvious reasons. His various statements and writings make clear that his views are outside the political consensus of a two-state solution, which Friedman rejects as an “illusion.” He supports the continued growth of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank—territory he denies is actually occupied—and believes that Palestinians living there have no rights beyond what Israel chooses to grant them.
Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, insists that Friedman’s nomination doesn’t signify a break with the two-state policy. But it seems extremely unlikely that Trump would’ve made such a choice—and that a Greater Israel advocate like Friedman would’ve accepted it—if the Trump administration’s approach were going to be business as usual.
Liberal groups J Street and Americans for Peace Now have come out against Friedman, while right-wing organizations like the Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition have praised him. But two of the largest and most influential groups on Israel, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), have respectively remained silent or aggressively neutral. While this can be partially explained by their desire to maintain access to a Trump White House, one doubts either group would be so reticent if a president had nominated an ambassador who rejected Israel’s right to exist, as Friedman does Palestine’s.
Thus, in nominating Friedman, Trump has done again what he did throughout the election on a range of issues: laid bare a set of views just below the surface of American politics. AIPAC and the ADL’s non-response on Friedman demonstrates that a considerable portion of the pro-Israel establishment doesn’t really prioritize a two-state solution; they see it mainly as a tool to deflect any political pressure on Israel, the argument being that such pressure could undermine negotiations. But when you have no negotiations, and an incoming administration that has no intention of applying pressure, the two-state solution becomes less valuable as a talking point.
But the Friedman nomination is helpfully clarifying, in the same way as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election eve promise last year that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch. With the veil now stripped back, it’s possible to have a more honest debate about these issues, one that we should welcome. If the U.S. no longer supports the creation of a Palestinian state, and also doesn’t support a single state with equal rights for all, then there’s really only one other option: permanent Israeli rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians.
Friedman’s extreme views are shared by many conservatives. On a congressional delegation to Israel-Palestine in 2010, then–House Minority Whip Eric Cantor offered his support for Israel’s evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers. Gary Bauer, the Republican activist and former presidential candidate, said in a speech to AIPAC a few years ago that “God granted the Land of Israel to the Jewish people and there is an absolute ban on giving it away to another people.” Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin told Barbara Walters in 2009, “I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon. I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.” And former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (who had been a rumored candidate for ambassador to Israel) has said that there’s “no such thing as a Palestinian,” and that they should be made to find a homeland “elsewhere.”
Now that these beliefs have been brought into the highest levels of a U.S. administration, we have an opportunity to debate them openly, rather than continuing to conceal them beneath a “peace process” that has clearly reached a dead end. If the Palestinians do not deserve statehood, as Friedman seems to believe, what arrangement does he and the Trump administration envision for the land of Israel-Palestine? Permanent second-class status, contained within a set of Bantustans amid a warren of security checkpoints and bypass roads?
This is clearly the vision of the current Israeli government, and until now the only thing slowing its steady entrenchment has been the criticisms from the U.S. government. In the absence of even those meager restraints, it’s very possible that the Israeli government will move forward with the annexation of key areas of the West Bank, making de jure what has until now been de facto.
But there is hope yet that those meager restraints may remain, as Friedman could face at least one powerful objector in the Trump administration: retired General James Mattis, the secretary of defense nominee. Speaking at the 2013 Aspen Security Forum about why he saw the two-state solution as important to Israel’s future, Mattis said. “Either [Israel] ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote—apartheid. That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country.”
It would be interesting to hear Friedman’s response to Mattis’s analysis, and it’s incumbent upon the Senate, in its confirmation hearings, to press the issue of Palestine’s future. The U.S.-Israel relationship is often said to be based on “shared values,” which AIPAC describes as “based in large part on an unshakable dedication to common values. Commitment to democracy, the rule of law, freedom of religion and speech and human rights are all core values shared between the United States and Israel.” But if Israel does as Friedman wishes, all of those supposed values will be called into question.