Critics warn US could adopt 'pro-settler agenda'

2016-12-20 06:15


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Jerusalem - Donald Trump's nomination of David Friedman as the United States ambassador to Israel provoked widespread consternation over the weekend, amid heightened speculation that the president-elect's selection would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In a statement accepting the nomination, 57-year-old Friedman welcomed the chance to work "from the US Embassy in Israel's eternal capital, Jerusalem". That would signal US recognition of Israel's illegal annexation of East Jerusalem, long viewed as the only feasible capital of a future Palestinian state.

But Friedman's appointment - if confirmed by the Senate - would mean more than a change of address for the US embassy and a further deterioration in the prospects for Palestinian statehood.

"It ends any illusion of there being a diplomatic process," Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, told Al Jazeera. "The next US administration isn't just going to have a pro-Israel agenda like its predecessors. It's going to have a pro-settler agenda."

That, say analysts, could mark a seismic shift in the "special relationship" between the US and Israel. The likely shock waves could disrupt business as usual in Washington, Europe and Israel itself - and an early casualty might be the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas.

West Bank

Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who has been close to Trump for the past 15 years, is a high-profile ally of Israel's hard line settler movement. He is known to favour annexing large parts of the West Bank, if not all of it.

That puts him - at least on paper - to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister. In fact, Friedman is ideologically closer to Jewish Home, the far-right settler party led by Netanyahu's political rival, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Traditionally, ambassadors do not make policy. But Friedman had Trump's ear as an adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the course of the presidential election campaign. It is hard not to interpret his nomination as a declaration of intent by a Trump White House.

In recent months Friedman has left few doubts about where he - and Trump - stand on the major issues.

His personal support for the settlers is no secret. He is the president of American Friends of Beit El, which helps finance an extremist settlement near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. He also contributes opinion articles to Arutz Sheva, the settlers' main media outlet.

In September, Friedman was one of the few taking Netanyahu's side after the prime minster equated the creation of a Palestinian state with the "ethnic cleansing of Jews" - the removal of settlers living in the occupied territories in violation of international law. Netanyahu, he said, had made "exactly the right point".

Earlier, in the summer, Friedman said a Trump administration would put zero pressure on Israel to create a Palestinian state. "If the Israelis don't want to do it, so [Trump] doesn't think they should do it. It is their choice," he told the Haaretz newspaper.

But the effect of Friedman as ambassador could be more significant than just ending the pretence of Washington as an honest broker, according to Israeli analyst Jeff Halper. It would herald the moment the US withdraws involvement.

Regarding annexation of parts, or even all, of the West Bank, Friedman has said Trump "wouldn't have any problem with that at all".

"This is when the US says, 'We are out of the picture. Let the parties work it out themselves'," Halper told Al Jazeera. "That gives Israel the green light to start annexing the West Bank. Israel does it with a wink."

Friedman's influence is likely to prove especially polarising among Jews in Israel and the US, said Yossi Alpher, who served as an adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"A clear majority of American Jews are liberal and will be very unhappy if the Trump administration is openly supportive of the settlers," he told Al Jazeera. "That would drive a wedge among them."

During the election campaign Friedman accused both President Obama and the State Department of being "anti-Semitic". Any State Department officials who try to oppose Trump's Middle East policy, he has said, will be told: "You know what, guys? You're all fired!"


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