Israel National News sat down with Ambassador David Friedman, former American ambassador to Israel, for a special Interview discussing his bestselling book and his current views on Israel and American foreign policy.
Friedman’s book “Sledgehammer: How Breaking with the Past Brought Peace to the Middle East” was released four months ago and has been a huge seller. In the first week, it was a bestseller in Israel, selling more copies of any book on the subject on Israel in the past 10 years, and was also number six in the country for hardcover non-fiction.
The title refers to a well known photo of him breaking the walls in the City of David: “That picture offended the New York Times, which took that metaphor and associated it with me for the remainder of my term. I was referred to by the Times on numerous occasions as a sledgehammer so I adopted their metaphor because it was also true metaphorically because of a number of ways I approached the policies of the State Department.”
When asked about his mantra of “Peace through strength,” he explains: “There is no path to peace that doesn’t begin with strength. Weakness, especially in the Middle East, but almost anywhere, is often something which is exploited by the enemies of freedom wherever they are. You need to be strong first.”
One of the initial things Friedman did early on in the Trump administration was he showed Trump a video of "the real Abbas". Trump was flying to Israel from Saudi Arabia with the mindset that “it was Bibi who wasn’t prepared to make peace” because that was what presidential advisors in Washington had told him.
“I felt I needed to help the president get up to speed on this issue. And I couldn’t think of a better way to do it than showing him the real Mahmoud Abbas,” he recalls.
The Israeli government put together a two-minute video for him with “some of the really disturbing things that Abbas has said over the years about the holiness of the murder of Jews.”
At the first meeting with his delegation and the Israeli delegation, he asked Netanyahu to have the video ready. When they were sitting down he asked President Trump to watch the video.
“After Trump saw it, he said, ‘Is that the same guy that I met a month ago in Washington?’ because Abbas had been in Washington the month before. The next day the president goes to Bethlehem, meets Abbas… the first thing he noticed was that I wasn’t there, when he heard that I was disinvited he was very angry. And then he laced into Abbas, and said, ‘Who are you? Are you the guy who met with me in Washington or are you the guy I saw on the tape? Tell me who you are?’ I wasn’t there but I heard that [Abbas] turned white. It was an incredible important moment because it told him, the jig is up. You can’t play this game with President Trump. It was a very pivotal moment in our relationship with Israel.”
In terms of what prevented annexation during the Trump years, Friedman explains that there were many factors at play.
“There was almost a perfect storm of factors working against sovereignty and in favour of the Abraham Accords,” he explains.
“I can’t single out one [factor]. I can tell you the combination of COVID, the absence of polling in favour of it in Israel, the government disfunction, and the Israeli right kind of pushing as hard as they could against the [Trump] plan, all those things contributed to it. On the positive side, the Emirates said to us, if you put off [annexation] a little bit – not if you cancel it – and give diplomacy a bit more of a chance, we would be willing to normalize with Israel. And then we started talking about that to find out what normalization meant. All of a sudden, you have this extraordinary once in a generation opportunity which took up all the attention from that moment forward.”
What is the pressure like from the United States in terms of construction in Judea and Samara? What form does that pressure take?
“I think the Biden government wants to keep Bennett in power so there’s a limit to how much they’re going to push,” Friedman says.
As an example, he mentions the announcement of the agenda for building, for which there was a condemnation, but that was all there was.
“They’re not making any secret that they’re completely against it, and I’ve offered my views that it’s a complete waste of time. Assuming you’re a Democratic administration in favour of a two-state solution, there is no way that any of the building that’s being contemplated in any of these communities is going to impeded a two-state solution. A two-state solution will not involve any of these communities being dismantled because if it requires dismantling, it will never happen.”
He termed the Biden administration’s concern over every bit of building in communities in Judea and Samaria as an “unhealthy obsession.”
“I’ve said to anyone who will listen to me, stay out of this because there’s no upside to it. You’re not going to win, you’re going to create friction and by the way it doesn’t negatively impact what you want to do. You might never get to a two-state solution but the reason will not be because somebody built 200 homes in Beit El… so don’t become the zoning board of Judea and Samaria. Israelis don’t care what gets built in America, do the same thing.”
Should Israel ignore the Biden administration on construction in Judea and Samaria?
Friedman emphasizes that he believes Israel needs to find a national consensus about an eastern boarder.
“What land must you have and what land are you willing to negotiate. And from there forward, manage to that goal,” he says.
He also believes that if U.S. opposition is an issue, Israel should work with the United States to convince the administration why it would be in the best interest of Israel, the Middle East and the Palestinian Arabs.
Bennett said you can’t compare building during Trump to building during Biden. Does he agree with that?
“That’s true but I don’t think it matters,” he says, but adds that the most important question is, “What does Israel see as its future in Judea and Samaria? You have to make that decision internally first.”
“If you allow anyone else to make that decision for you, no one in Israel will be happy with the decision. You have to start from a position of strength,” he says.
When asked if this era is still a time of bipartisan support for Israel, he speaks about the difference between the Democrats and Republicans.
He notes that the polling shows that the Republican Party is the party of Israel, with a much more pro-Israel agenda, but adds, “Are there Democrats that support Israel? Of course. Are there Republicans that could do better? Of course.”
Commenting on the growing influence of the stridently anti-Israel progressive wing of the Democratic Party, he says: “You can’t get tenure at an American university if you’re pro-Israel. What are we teaching all the kids that are coming out of college. The trend line in America is very disturbing.”
On the subject of what would have happened had Trump won a second term, Friedman explains that he believes there would have been a continuation to move the sovereignty issue down the tracks, to give it serious thought and embrace it down the road.
“In the context of not just what we are taking but what we are leaving behind as well for the Palestinians. Something which really was an overall solution. I would have been very happy to work on that track. And at the same time working on that track would have enabled us to scale the Abraham Accords.”
He believes this is the case because, for instance, Israel has a lot in common with other countries in the region in terms of fighting extremism.
“When I met with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed who is the foreign minister of the UAE he said something very astute. He said, ‘Every country in the 21st century is fighting extremism. We’re not fighting each other very much anymore, we’re really fighting extremism.’ And one of the reasons UAE and Israel are such natural partners is because we both have extremism within our country and we’re both trying to fight it and we must win. The battle has to be won by the moderates.”
Friedman is very concerned about a weak America.
“The biggest issue in the world is a weak America, that’s what puts the world at risk. A weak America is what invited adventurism by Putin in Ukraine. It’s what enables the Chinese to fly very close to Taiwan and to threaten a takeover. It’s what makes the Iranians think they can develop a nuclear weapon and hold the world hostage. It began with the disastrous evacuation of Afghanistan. It left behind its partners, it left behind its allies and it left behind its citizens.”
Will it leave behind Israel in terms of Iran?
“Biden said, ‘We’re only going to defend countries that are members of NATO.’ Israel is not a member of NATO. That signal should cause Israel to be concerned. I think that’s not where most of the Americans are. And I’m not even sure that’s where Biden is. But some of these signals have weakened America, and when America is weak the entire world is at risk,” Friedman says.
“Say what you want about Donald Trump, we had four years of peace,” he adds. “I don’t think too many countries were willing to challenge him because he would not signal in advance what he was going to do.”