David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt are living their best lives. Greenblatt had just finished telling CNN after wrapping up the Peace to Prosperity workshop in Bahrain that he has not found a solitary thing, no matter how small, about which to criticize Israel after two and a half years on the job, when the two U.S. representatives were back in Israel, having put the thorny subject of Israeli-Palestinian peace aside and moved on to other priorities. It began at a Yisrael Hayom conference that doubled as a party for Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, where Greenblatt rejected the use of the term settlements to describe Israeli communities east of the Green Line and Friedman held up Yisrael Hayom, the free propaganda sheet that Israelis derisively refer to as the Bibiton, as a paragon of truth and objectivity. It continued on Sunday, when Friedman and Greenblatt attended a ceremony at the City of David archeological park in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan and both gleefully took turns with a sledgehammer to help break down a ceremonial wall and inaugurate the newest City of David tourist exhibit. This came on the heels of Friedman saying that for Israel to ever vacate Silwan – a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem that is estimated to have between 40,000 and 50,000 Palestinian residents and 700 to 800 Jewish ones – would be akin to the U.S. giving up the Statue of Liberty. Whatever Greenblatt and Friedman are doing, they are creating a very different standard for what one might expect from American representatives in the region.
I understand where Greenblatt and Friedman are coming from. I grew up in the same New York Orthodox Jewish community from which they hail, and graduated from the same Orthodox high school as Greenblatt. I’ll wager that I spent more time in Israel as a kid, whether with my family or on various teen summer programs, than they did. I feel just as strong an emotional attachment to Jerusalem as they obviously do, and have spent countless hours across years at the Temple Mount southern wall excavations, the City of David site, and other archeological exhibits in Silwan. I’ve written before about the disgrace of Palestinian denials of the deep Jewish connection to Jerusalem and I think that the U.S. has an interest in clearly and forcefully recognizing those historical, religious, cultural, and political ties. None of this changes the fact that Greenblatt and Friedman are acting in wildly inappropriate ways for U.S. diplomats, and as American citizens, we should insist that they do better.
It is glaringly obvious that Greenblatt and Friedman are letting their personal views and interests interfere with their jobs. It must be so nice for Friedman that he had the opportunity to attend the City of David inauguration and that he got to help unveil a staircase that his ancestors may have used two thousand years ago to ascend to the Second Temple. Why something like that requires the actual participation of a U.S. government official in such a high profile way, particularly when it involves such a diplomatically sensitive and controversial site, is mystifying. Do the U.S. government and the Trump administration have such a vested interest in Jerusalem archeological digs that Friedman not only needed to be there, but that he needed to help knock down a wall and give a speech while stretching the bounds of credulity by claiming that “there has been enormous support for the City of David by the American public” when asked why this whole thing is an American concern? Friedman’s personal political views are his own business and he has every right to hold them. But the idea that he is acting in his capacity as an American ambassador, rather than using his status as an American ambassador to do things that he loves to do, beggars belief.
More mystifying is not why the American ambassador was involved, but why the official American peace negotiator was involved too. The City of David is run by Elad, an NGO that works to turn Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem into Jewish ones by evicting Palestinian residents and moving in Israeli Jews. It has a clear and transparent political agenda, and whatever one thinks of that agenda, bringing Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer is not part of it. And yet there was Greenblatt, lending his presence to a process and ceremony that was condemned by the Palestinians and condemned by the Jordanians, all the while making his stated mission that much harder. Even if I were to accept the argument that Friedman’s participation is defensible because he represents American support for our ally Israel, there is no universe in which the person who is tasked with getting the two sides to an agreement should so blatantly be casting aside the appearance of objectivity in such a controversial and contentious way. Friedman and Greenblatt are acting like middle-aged men who go to baseball fantasy camp, mingle with their favorite athletes, and pretend that they have their dream jobs, and not like people who actually have those jobs and of whom something different is required.
But perhaps I am wrong, and their actual jobs do indeed require precisely what they are doing. Recall the umbrage that Trump administration officials took following President Trump’s Jerusalem announcement when critics accused them of tilting the peace process playing field, and they insisted – from Trump himself and on down the line – that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without mentioning a word about Palestinian claims to the city was not a statement about borders or final claims of sovereignty. Yet now we have two of the three most visible American officials on the Israeli-Palestinian issue celebrating with an NGO whose actual mission is to eliminate a Palestinian presence from Jerusalem. We have an ambassador who says in an interview that Israel giving up a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem that is not part of the Old City is the same as the U.S. giving up its most famous monument and most iconic symbol. We have American diplomats participating in a ceremony that is intended to be a loud nationalist statement rather than a discrete archeological project. It is impossible to credibly claim with a straight face that the Trump administration has not now weighed in quite clearly on how it views the balance of claims in Jerusalem. The only question remaining is why Trump officials still feel the need to pretend that they are doing otherwise.
After treating everyone to their theater of the absurd in Manama that was a figurative destruction of any vestiges of a serious American-mediated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Friedman and Greenblatt decided that they needed to provide a literal image of destruction that could serve as a metaphor for what the administration has accomplished in this arena. How wonderful for them that they got to do it in their favorite historical and religious playground.