As the Trump presidency comes to an end, Ambassador David Friedman’s exit interview in the New York Times is a good summation of the drivers behind the last four years of U.S. policy toward Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Supporters and opponents of Trump administration policies have frequently noted that Friedman has been the driving force behind much of what has taken place, and even more striking than Jared Kushner crediting Friedman for the agenda and noting that “toward the end we were almost running out of things to accomplish, because David had gotten done so many things that were unthinkable” is Friedman’s self-description of being “somewhere between addicted and intoxicated with what I’ve been able to do.” Friedman’s, and by extension President Trump’s, real policy legacy in this arena was to end any semblance of evenhandedness, as the New York Times notes, and that extended to areas of policy that seemed to have no particular relevance to tangible U.S. interests but were deeply resonant ideologically.
While the embassy move to Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords remain Trump’s most high profile Israel-related actions, Friedman exhibits the most obvious pride not over Jerusalem or normalization agreements but over the way he shifted U.S. policy on the status of the West Bank. From pushing to change the State Department’s legal opinion on settlements, to paving the way for funding projects in them, to pushing for Israeli annexation at every opportunity, Friedman has been an unapologetic champion of a vision of Greater Israel, and one that requires a severe downgrade in Palestinian expectations for what that means for their own sovereignty and self-determination. Some people see this as cause to treat Trump and Friedman as heroes and others see this as cause to treat Trump and Friedman as villains, but irrespective of your political and policy inclinations, there is no question that Friedman views himself as someone who has ushered in changes that not only benefit Israel but that will be difficult to roll back. As Friedman says, “There’s no going back on what we’ve been able to do…We’ve changed the narrative dramatically.”
This is perhaps the best encapsulation of how the Trump team views its legacy; it’s not just what they have done, but the way that they believe in its permanence. On some measures, they are certainly correct. Leaving aside that President-elect Biden was forcefully clear that he would keep the embassy in Jerusalem, it is difficult to see any president moving it back to Tel Aviv. Normalization between Israel and Arab states is something that every administration for decades has supported and worked toward, even if Trump’s predecessors didn’t believe it was possible absent a deal with the Palestinians, so no future president is going to adopt a policy of purposely rolling it back. But on a raft of other issues, the changes that Trump oversaw at Friedman’s behest are not permanent because they are not realistic, which is perhaps the Trump team’s favorite buzzword. Friedman talks about having changed the narrative, and he certainly did, but a narrative is about how you view the world and not about how the world actually is. And in changing the American narrative for both Israelis and Palestinians, the Trump administration characteristically injected a dose of fantasy into the bloodstream that will indeed outlive its purveyors in unhelpful ways.
For all of its talk of realism, the Trump peace plan was one of the most unrealistic efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has ever been advanced. Taking the current status quo and making it even more untenable for Palestinians fits with the goal of abolishing any feint toward balance or trying to moderate between the sides, but it does not constitute a realistic effort to solve anything. The effect of the Trump approach on Israel was to inflate Israelis’ expectations to such a degree that it is like a sugar high, where the crash is going to leave them in a stupor. By telling people what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed to hear, Friedman thinks he was doing the Israeli government an enormous service. But in fact, he sold them a narrative that is ephemeral.
Take, for instance, Friedman’s casual rejection of the principle that Israel has to negotiate over its final borders. In casting it aside, he runs roughshod not only over his own government’s stated policy and the Israeli government’s stated policy of negotiations being the only acceptable way of determining the final disposition of territory between the two sides, but explicitly acknowledges in his aside—“forget about the rest of the world”—that the Trump administration has changed nothing at all. If a state unilaterally declares a new border and nobody else recognizes it, does that new border exist? Israel would encounter as much opposition today were it to unilaterally annex the Jordan Valley—a move the aversion of which made the Abraham Accords possible—as it would have four years ago, but by continuously telling Israelis the opposite, Friedman has only set the stage for future missteps that will lead to diplomatic clashes.
Friedman has also done the very thing of which he accuses Palestinian leaders, not without fair cause. He is right to upbraid Palestinians officials for not being forthright about the prospects of millions of refugees returning to what is today Israel. But he has behaved no differently in telling Israelis that Palestinians will eventually accept limited autonomy in a series of disconnected islands with no control over their own borders, or that not one Israeli will ever have to evacuate any part of the West Bank no matter how isolated or far-flung. He has not altered any type of consensus or gotten widespread acceptance for these positions; he has done nothing beyond altering the Israeli narrative of what is possible, even though his assessment of what is actually possible and sustainable is dubious. That he has changed the narrative is not the same as his policy moves being irreversible, and in fact the former is going to make the exposure of the latter claim that much more of a bitter pill for people to swallow.
In six days there will be a new president and shortly thereafter a new U.S. ambassador to Israel. New policies will be put in place, and the Trump administration policies likely to have the shortest shelf life will be the ones related to how the U.S. views the status of the West Bank. Friedman has every reason to be happy and proud of what he accomplished, and those who support his approach and ideology will be upset to see him depart. He has indeed accomplished much, but whether it is irreversible or even a boon to Israelis in the long run is not nearly as clear cut as Friedman posits.