David Friedman, Donald Trump’s close confidante and ambassador-designate to Israel, is not a right-winger. To be on the right wing implies that one is on a continuum from liberal to conservative. But Friedman – together with around 15% of the Israeli Jewish population – inhabits a different world entirely. His appointment would represent a total realignment of American policy in the Middle East, with the biggest winner being (surprise) Vladimir Putin.
The normal continuum runs as follows. The consensus of the international community, the Israeli government, and every American government for a generation is that that there must be a state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel. Of course, within that consensus, there are hawks and doves, right-wingers and left. Some are willing to take more risks for peace, some are more mistrustful of the people they call “the Arabs” and want any peace process to be slow and gradual. But all agree that it’s not feasible to create an apartheid regime in which 7 million Jews rule over 10 million non-Jews.
But in the world of Friedman, the Zionist Organization of America, the settler wing of the Israeli Right, and some parts of the American Jewish community, the path forward is one state – Israel – led by Jews, favoring Jews legally, and running from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. It is an apartheid state, meaning a state wherein one population has civil rights that another does not; where one has freedom of movement and another does not; where one has the entire apparatus of the state in its control, and the other either cannot vote or is guaranteed a permanent minority.
In the 2015 Israeli election, parties holding this view – Jewish Home, Israel Our Home, and the Ultra-Orthodox bloc – won 16.8% of the vote. All three are part of the Likud-led government, but, so far at least, the Likud has maintained that such a future for Israel would be untenable, immoral, and impossible to maintain. So has AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and every American administration.
But Friedman is not simply one of those American Jews who supports the far-right Zionist Organization of America and thinks that J Street – a Zionist organization – is “worse than kapos.” He is one of that community’s most effective leaders. He is president of an organization that raised around $2 million annually for an extremist settlement in the West Bank, and president of an affiliated organization that runs one “Arutz Sheva” (Channel 7), the Breitbart.com of Israel.
This is what outside observers often miss: the Israeli Far Right is actually an American-Israeli Far Right, bought and paid for by the David Friedmans and Sheldon Adelsons of the world (Adelson also has a right-wing Israeli rag, but not as far-right as Friedman’s), undermining Israeli democracy far more than any left-wing NGO could dream of doing. The settlements and the entire nationalistic culture around them are built with American Jewish and Christian Zionist money.
Not only is this world ideologically separate from the normal right-to-left continuum, it is often factually separate as well, not unlike the American alt-right, where fake news is real and real news is fake.
For example, consider the question of Palestinian population. Friedman has said many times that Israel can easily annex the West Bank because there actually aren’t that many Palestinians out there. In fact, this is a common claim on the far right, but it only works if you twist the numbers. Israel’s population is around 8.2 million, 1.7 million of whom are Arabs. Palestinians in the West Bank are around 3 million. So, 6.5 mil to 4.7mil – no problem.
But that math omits the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza (stateless, and periodically bombed to smithereens by Israel) and the 4 million Palestinians living in refugee camps in the region. If you add those in, you’ve already got more Palestinians than Israeli Jews today – and given birth rates, more will soon be living within the borders of “Greater Israel” itself.
That’s why Israeli right-wingers like Ehud Olmert, Yair Lapid, and even, sometimes, Benjamin Netanyahu, have all insisted on the two-state solution – not because they’re so magnanimous, but because it’s the only way for a non-apartheid Jewish state to endure. One must be literally deluded to imagine another alternative – either mathematically or, as is often the case, religiously, with Christian Zionists and Jewish Settler-Zealots competing for who gets to bring the messianic age first.
Again, there have always been hawks and doves on Israel/Palestine. But Friedman isn’t a hawk, he’s an ostrich.
Ironically, the appointment of one of the leaders of the Israeli settlement project in the West Bank (ruled illegal by the International Criminal Court and opposed by every American administration since Nixon), and an extreme Jewish nationalist may, in the end, be a catastrophe for Israel.
First, America’s role as “honest broker” in the region will be immediately lost. To the extent Friedman is representative of U.S. policy – and remember, he’s only an ambassador – that policy will shift on January 20 from broker to advocate. And not just advocate for Israel – but advocate of a view far to the right of Israel’s right-wing government.
It’s hard to see Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and even Saudi Arabia continuing to engage with the United States under such circumstances. Never in American history has there been an ambassador who has personally built settlements and spread extreme propaganda for the Israeli Far Right, the same community that valorizes the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, does nothing to curtail its “hilltop youth” from assaulting Palestinians and destroying their olive trees, and expropriates land from its rightful owners. How can Arab regimes possibly align themselves with such policies?
All eyes must then turn to Putin’s Russia. Russia already effectively controls Syria. Will other Arab countries turn to Russian patronage, as they did in the 1950s and 1960s? Will Putin, in fact, be the primary beneficiary of the American-Israel realignment? Obviously, it wouldn’t be the only time he benefits from the Trump presidency.
Then there’s what the realignment would mean for Israel internally. Already, Israel’s hard right has led to an uptick in emigration among the liberal Israelis who are powering the country’s economy. Loyalty oaths, crackdowns against civil rights organizations, censorship, flag-waving jingoism, tolerance for racism – Israel in the last decade has become a country its longtime inhabitants barely recognize. With carte blanche from the United States, these forces will be strengthened, and more liberal Israelis will leave for Los Angeles.
And, at some point, it seems inevitable that the world will turn against apartheid Israel the same as it turned against apartheid South Africa. Perhaps, with Europe also turning rightward, this won’t happen for a while, but it’s hard to believe it will never happen at all. And in the meantime, Israel will become like LePen’s France or the America of Trump’s alt-right supporters: an ethno-nationalist state where civil liberties are subordinated to ethno-religious identity.
Of course, while liberal Israelis will suffer because of a Trump-Friedman America, Palestinians will suffer far more. An America that unequivocally backs permanent Israeli occupation is a human rights disaster in the short term, and a moral disaster in the long term. Palestinians will certainly revolt, leading to more military crackdowns. The nascent Palestinian normalcy we’ve seen in Ramallah, where cafes are open and businessmen are making money, will disappear. Many, many people will die.
And with the peace process finally abandoned, Palestinian moderates will collapse, to be replaced by militants of one form or another. This will fulfill the dreams of people like Friedman, because at last there won’t be a Palestinian partner for peace – only an implacable enemy bent on violence.
That’s how the David Friedmans of the world see Palestinians already, after all, and the sooner it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, the better. Then the U.S. and Russia can go back to their proxy wars in the Middle East, each side’s conservatives thriving on the struggle.
With 17 million Israelis and Palestinians caught in the crossfire.