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The provocations of Trump’s ambassador to Israel are upending decades of U.S. diplomacy

The provocations of Trump’s ambassador to Israel are upending decades of U.S. diplomacy
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, left, talks to American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, at the opening June 30 of an ancient road at the City of David. (Tsafrir Abayov / Associated Press)

Beaming and triumphant, David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, presided last week over a Fourth of July gala — the first to be held with the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

He pulled out all the stops.

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It was “the biggest and the best Fourth of July party ever held in the state of Israel!” he said, using the kind of hyperbole typical of his boss, President Trump.

He called it one of the preeminent Fourth of July parties “in the entire world!” speaking to nearly 2,000 guests jam-packed into a cavernous Jerusalem convention center under glaring spotlights, red-white-and-blue bunting and scores of American and Israeli flags.

Joining in a toast that extolled what Friedman called the biblical connection of Jerusalem to the birth of the United States were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, making a rare appearance at an official U.S. event, some of the most far-right Jewish settlers that Israel has to offer. The scores of Palestinians who were typically guests in years past were nowhere in sight.

Friedman, one of Trump’s earliest ambassadorial appointments, has been the prime mover behind a string of new U.S. tactics and positions, helping to engineer the most significant shift in American policy toward Israel and Palestinian Arabs since the establishment of Israel in 1948.

In any other American administration, Friedman would be reined in for going rogue.

But Friedman’s unprecedented provocations have not only gone unchallenged by his bosses, they have also been encouraged. And in so doing, the Trump administration has solidified its support for Israel at the expense of Palestinian ambitions and the United States’ previous reputation as a largely neutral party, say current and former diplomats.

One by one, Friedman has taken steps and crossed lines, going where no U.S. ambassador has gone and upending decades of policy, often in contravention of international law.

He has endorsed an idea voiced by Netanyahu to annex part of the West Bank, which is claimed by the Palestinians. He was instrumental in persuading Trump to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, ignoring Palestinian claims on parts of the holy city. He pushed for the U.S. to recognize Israeli control over the Golan Heights, a fertile plateau that Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.

Friedman’s influence came to play in the administration’s cancellation of most aid for Palestinian refugees and shuttering of the Palestinian Authority’s de facto embassy in Washington.

He has all but campaigned for Netanyahu; told Orthodox rabbis that Republicans are friendlier to the Jewish people than Democrats, and once equated liberal Jews with Jewish prisoners who collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Trump put Friedman, along with son-in-law Jared Kushner and special envoy Jason Greenblatt, in charge of coming up with a peace deal that would resolve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That relegated the State Department, the normal repository for diplomatic enterprise, to the sidelines.

Given their backgrounds and lack of diplomatic experience, the trio was received by the Palestinians with great suspicion. Once Trump moved the U.S. Embassy, the Palestinian leadership broke off contact with Washington’s envoys.

Both Friedman and Greenblatt were lawyers for the Trump Organization, and along with Kushner, have long been supporters of the settler movement to build housing for Israeli Jews throughout the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967 and is claimed by the Palestinians for a future independent nation.

The settlements are illegal under international law. At the urging of his three Middle East advisors, Trump has not condemned settlement construction, and he has backed away from the traditional U.S. position of support for a Palestinian state, the so-called two-state solution that envisions Israel and Palestine living side by side.

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Friedman takes that position to its extreme.

Just ahead of the Fourth of July bash, he wielded a sledgehammer, literally, to break open an ancient tunnel being excavated under the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem. The demolition was part of a ceremony inaugurating the tunnel, sponsored by a settlement group whose goal is to expand modern-day Jewish presence in East Jerusalem, pushing out Palestinians.

Greenblatt also attended, as did Las Vegas casino magnate and mega-donor — to both Trump and Netanyahu — Sheldon Adelson.

The tunnel led to what Israeli archaeologists are calling Pilgrimage Road, because it is believed to be where Jesus and other Jews once walked on the way to temple. It thus ties Jews, Christians and the “Judeo-Christian values on which the United States was founded,” Friedman said.

Friedman’s participation won enthusiastic praise from the Israeli right and was lambasted by the left.

“The ceremony distilled Trump’s radical departure from 70 years of U.S. foreign policy as practiced by his predecessors — including the decidedly pro-Israel Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — into its macabre essence,” veteran Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev wrote in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper. “It heralds an American abandonment of any presumption that it can serve as an honest broker, or as any kind of broker at all.”

In Washington, reporters have repeatedly asked the State Department whether Friedman’s actions and statements, so diametric from traditional U.S. policy, are sanctioned.

“Our policy has not changed,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. Asked then whether Friedman would be reprimanded, she laughed.

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After the sledgehammer incident, The Times again asked for comment.

“Ambassador Friedman has the full support of the president,” a State Department official said, speaking unnamed in keeping with the agency’s rules. The event at the tunnel “represented a once-in-a-century discovery of historical significance to many Americans, as well as Israelis.

“No political message was intended,” the official said.

Yet politics infuses nearly every public gesture in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and especially those undertaken by representatives of the U.S. government.

Critics say Friedman’s activities are aimed at least partly at shoring up two important portions of Trump’s political base: right-wing Jews and Christian evangelicals, for whom the Holy Land holds special appeal.

“Any pretense of objectivity, fairness, even [the] slightest notion” that both sides in the conflict have legitimate demands and needs has been “sacrificed on the altar of domestic politics” of Trump and Netanyahu, said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East envoy for Republican and Democratic administrations.

Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian official, said U.S. ambassadors have traditionally been regarded by Palestinians as pro-Israel but always with interest in and sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Friedman, she said, is not an ambassador for the United States but an ambassador for the settlers’ movement.

“This administration has been punishing the Palestinians, both collectively and individually, ever since it came to office,” Ashrawi said.

She was speaking after her most recent application for a U.S. visa, with which she intended to visit her U.S.-citizen children and grandchildren, was for the first time denied. After the publicity, Ashrawi, who is a Christian, eventually received a visa.

Kushner and Greenblatt, meanwhile, last month in Bahrain presented what they billed as a “prosperity plan” for Palestinians, as the first portion of their long-awaited peace proposal. It was roundly panned by Palestinians because it ignored political aspirations; many felt it was the Trump administration’s attempt to buy them off.

Kushner, speaking about the proposal afterward to mostly Arabic-language reporters, blasted Palestinian leadership as “foolish” and “hysterical and erratic.” He seemed to absolve Israel of any responsibility for the Palestinians’ plight and dismissed statehood aspirations as leading to “the same tired conversations that lead to nowhere.”

A new poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, found 90% of respondents did not trust or believe the Trump administration, and a majority remained skeptical about any forthcoming peace plan.

Khalil Shikaki, who heads the center, said unlike earlier U.S. administrations, there was never much favorable regard for Trump because of his pro-Israel stance during the presidential campaign. The trend has only accelerated in the past two years.

“It is very clear [Trump’s envoys] have done absolutely nothing to reach out to the Palestinians and discern their needs,” Shikaki said.

Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondent Tarnopolsky from Jerusalem.

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