Occupied Jerusalem : Beaming and triumphant, David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, presided last week over a Fourth of July gala – the first to be held with the US Embassy in occupied Jerusalem. He pulled out all the stops.
It was “the biggest and the best 4th of July party ever held in the state of Israel!” he said.
He called it one of the preeminent Fourth of July parties “in the entire world” while speaking to nearly 2,000 guests jam-packed into a cavernous convention centre in occupied Jerusalem 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 occupied Jerusalem to the birth of the United States were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, making a rare appearance at an official US event, some of the most far-right Jewish colonists that Israel has to offer. The scores of Palestinians who were typically guests in years past were nowhere in sight.
Friedman, one of President Donald Trump’s earliest ambassadorial appointments, has been the prime mover behind a string of new US tactics and positions, helping to engineer the most significant shift in American policy towards 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’ve been encouraged. And in so doing, the Trump administration has solidified its support for Israel at the expense of Palestinian ambitions and the US’s 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 US ambassador has gone and upturning 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 US Embassy from Tel Aviv, ignoring Palestinian claims on parts of the holy city. He pushed for the US to recognise the Israeli regime’s occupation of the Golan Heights, a fertile plateau that Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Friedman’s influence came to play in the administration’s cancellation of most aid for Palestinian refugees and shuttering of the Palestinian National 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 US Embassy, the Palestinian leadership broke off contact with Washington’s envoys.
Both Friedman and Greenblatt were lawyers for the Trump Organisation, and with Kushner, all three have long been financial and political supporters of the colonist 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.
Just ahead of the Fourth of July bash, Friedman wielded a sledgehammer, literally, to break open an ancient tunnel being excavated under the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem. The demolition was part of a ceremony inaugurating the tunnel, sponsored by a colonist group whose goal is to expand modern-day Jewish presence in occupied eastern Jerusalem, pushing out Palestinians.
Greenblatt also attended, as did Las Vegas casino magnate and mega-donor – to both Trump and Netanyahu – Sheldon Adelson.
In Washington, reporters have repeatedly asked the State Department if Friedman’s actions and statements, so diametric from traditional US policy, are sanctioned.
“Our policy has not changed,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. Asked then if Friedman would be reprimanded, she laughed.
After the sledgehammer incident, the Los Angeles 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 Occupied Territories, and especially those undertaken by representatives of the US 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 US 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 colonist 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 US visa, with which she intended to visit her US-citizen children and grandchildren, was for the first time denied. After the publicity, Ashrawi, who is a Christian, eventually received a visa.
-Los Angeles Times