If reelected, US President Trump will continue to set policies with the potential to transform the Middle East, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said in an interview on Sunday with The Jerusalem Post.
“We’re in a position to change things in the Middle East for the next 100 years,” Friedman said. “The friends and potential friends get to join the circle of peace and get the peace dividends that come with it. Those who are hostile and want to be on the outside, fine. Iran gets maximum pressure and Palestinian donors are drying up.”
“We’ve had a great run of four years on foreign policy,” Friedman said. “We’ve made peace in the Middle East, which we haven’t had in a generation. We supported our strongest ally and repaired a relationship fractured in the last administration. We countered malign activity in Iran, both financially and militarily in terms of removing [Quds Force commander Qassem] Soleimani and brought that regime to a place where it was far weaker.”
Friedman pointed to the Abraham Accords and the wave of countries establishing diplomatic ties with Israel as a continued top priority in a second Trump administration.
“There are five to 10 countries – I think it’s much closer to 10 than to five – that would join, especially in North Africa,” Friedman said. “There are nations that have not yet normalized ties with Israel that are far more likely to do it if they see a Trump administration, because they see this as a priority of the Trump administration.”
If more countries establish ties with Israel, then “I think the Palestinians are likely to understand that they’re on the wrong side of history and can move in a different direction,” Friedman said. “We’ll have the first chance in probably 12 years to really get around the table on terms we can accept.”
Now, before the election, is the Palestinian “leadership’s last Hail Mary,” Friedman said, but if Trump is reelected, he said, “I have no doubt…at that point I think you’ll see the mindset shift from resistance to ‘let’s get on board.’”
Friedman argued that the Trump administration has put pressure on Iran and the Palestinians such that “the only strategy they really have right now is to hope Trump loses.”
Under a Biden administration, “the maximum pressure on Iran would be in jeopardy and make it more likely that Iran would have the funds necessary to ramp up their malign activity.
“Conversely, with maximum pressure, there is a likelihood [Iran’s leaders] would moderate their behavior, because they’re going broke,” the ambassador said.
Friedman dismissed concerns that Trump may be eager to sign a new deal with Iran – which he has mentioned many times in recent months – that he would be willing to compromise on security.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “set out 12 points and that will be the template if there is ever a deal. That includes no aid to terrorism, no ballistic missiles, no nukes, no adventurism throughout the region – the basics. I don’t see any deal by the Trump administration that wouldn’t have that.”
Overall, Friedman assessed the past four years as being relatively peaceful for Israel.
“The reason for that is we have had an unambiguous level of support for Israel. We never threw around stupid words like ‘proportionate force,’” Friedman said. “Israel’s enemies knew we expect Israel to defend itself just like the US would from an attack.”
Friedman recounted a “disturbing” experience meeting Sen. Bernie Sanders, who came in second place in the Democratic presidential primary. Before Friedman’s confirmation, he had courtesy calls with about 70 senators.
The ambassador recounted that Sanders asked him to “concede that Israel uses disproportionate force in Gaza.”
“I said to him, let’s say a hospital is also a depot for rockets, so that the source of the rockets is in a building that has a red crescent on it and maybe there are a couple of people there who are really sick. What do you do then? Are you saying…if a terrorist organization is shooting indiscriminate rockets at civilian populations from schools and hospitals, the recipient of those attacks can’t attack the source of the missiles?
“And [Sanders] says, ‘I think we’re done. It’s very complicated,’” Friedman recalled. “I said, if it’s so complicated, why are you so free with your accusations? I saw a guy who almost became president with a reflexive view that Israel has almost no right to defend itself.”
Friedman said he does not think that view is prevalent in the US government, and “not every Democrat sees it that way,” but that this “frightening” school of thought exists.
Asked if the thinks that school of thought influences Biden or policies, Friedman said he does not know.
“I assume he’s getting a lot of polling as to what’s popular among his potential voters, and he’s surrounded by people who are scary. Sanders, [Massachusetts Senator] Elizabeth Warren, [NY Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, [Michigan Rep.] Ilhan Omar frighten me,” he said.
The ambassador expressed concern that Israel’s enemies will see subtle political movements in the US as a window of opportunity to attack Israel.
“One thing I’ve learned on this job is that people in the region watch the signals incredibly carefully…to the extent that Israel’s enemies see a signal suggesting they can get away with malign activity they are much more likely to take a chance,” he said.
Friedman also responded to a number of claims and arguments put forward by Biden’s advisers and surrogates.
For example, he pointed to Biden surrogates treating the Abraham Accords like “low-hanging fruit,” something that had long been in the works and easy to achieve.
“Then why didn’t you pick the fruit when you had a chance?” Friedman asked.
He also responded to the position that the accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were “just an arms deal,” and that selling F-35 fighter jets to the UAE endangers Israel.
Friedman said that he did not hear the warplanes come up at all during the talks preceding the announced UAE-Israel normalization, though, in light of Egypt and Jordan receiving F-16s after making peace with Israel, he said there was surely “a recognition that as countries become aligned with Israel they can make a better case” for buying US arms.
As for retaining Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME), Friedman pointed out that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz worked hard on the matter in recent weeks, with Gantz meeting US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper three times in the past month, and reached an agreement that there is a way for the US to complete the sale without putting Israel’s QME in jeopardy.
“I think the whole thing was politicized. I don’t think there was anything to this. I listened to the QME analysis being done…in the Pentagon. The one thing that struck me was how committed everyone in the US is to Israel’s QME. They’re all extremely driven by the idea that it’s just non-negotiable,” he said.
Friedman also said he saw no merit in the claims that Trump has empowered antisemites on the Right.
“What you’re seeing is the politicization of antisemitism,” he said. “It’s hard to watch…There are antisemites on the Right and antisemites on the Left. It’s not unique to either political branch. There are terrible, horrible people on both extremes and there always have been.”
He referred specifically to Trump saying “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides” at a 2017 protest against tearing down a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, at which people shouted “Jews will not replace us.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this thing about Charlottesville four years later,” Friedman said. “He was clearly distinguishing between people who showed up to a rally and people who are in the Klan or other hate groups.”
“Jewish people will suffer from this, because as long as it’s politicized, antisemitism will continue and people will suffer. It’s a completely self-inflicted wound by the Jewish community,” he added.
Pushed on Trump’s perceived reticence to condemn right-wing hate groups, Friedman said the president has repeatedly condemned those groups, but also makes sure to bring up extremism on the Left at the same time.
“I think there’s no there there,” he said. “I know him for 20 years, under all kinds of circumstances…and have never heard anything that would suggest he has an affinity for hate groups on either side. That’s just not who he is. I think he perceives every question asked of him as an attempt at a gotcha because of bias in the media, and he wants to make sure antisemitism is called out across the spectrum.
“If I thought he was being ambiguous about it, I would call him and say so,” Friedman added.
Friedman seemed most animated in responding to Biden campaign officials and surrogates saying the Democratic candidate was motivated by the Holocaust to support Israel, calling that view “disturbing.”
“Without diminishing the impact the Holocaust had – it’s relevant – but the idea that Israel is the answer to the Holocaust is a very dangerous position,” he said. “The Zionist movement predates the Holocaust by 2,000 years. Jews were rebuilding a state before the Holocaust.”
Tying Israel’s establishment to the Holocaust is also unfair to the Palestinians, Friedman added, because although the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin al-Husseini aided Hitler, it wouldn’t be the Palestinians’ or Jordanians’ job to compensate the Jews.
“That point of view, even if well-intentioned – and I’m sure it is – is really thoughtless and dangerous. It doesn’t give effect to what Zionism really is. It’s not about making sure Jews don’t get slaughtered. It’s about the actualization of the multi-millennial yearning of the Jewish people for self-determination,” he said.
“Hatikvah says ‘to be a free nation in our land,’ not ‘protect us from antisemitism,’” Friedman added. “If there was no antisemitism, there would still be a strong case for a State of Israel.”