The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s reckless choice of ambassador is a gift to Israel’s radical right

Donald Trump, center, along with his daughter Ivanka Trump and attorney David Friedman, leave the Federal Building after appearing in bankruptcy court in 2010 in Camden, N.J. (Bradley C Bower/Bloomberg News)

Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli historian and journalist, is the author of “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977″ and, most recently, “The Unmaking of Israel.”

If you want to take a deep dive into what’s disastrous about Donald Trump’s pick for the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, I suggest starting with a tweet this week by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister. Since “the idea of a Palestinian state is over,” Bennett wrote, folks should look at the policy proposal that he’d earlier laid out in a YouTube clip and that he now expects Israel to adopt.

In the slick video, a pen quickly draws maps as a voice-over explains that Israel must annex Area C. That’s the 60 percent of the West Bank where Israel’s settlements are located, and where Israel has not ceded any powers to the Palestinian Authority. The pen does not, however, actually draw Area C. This map would reveal that the remaining areas that Bennett wants to leave under Palestinian “self-rule” are a patchwork of enclaves — or, shall we say, Bantustans.

Now here’s the thing: Bennett heads Jewish Home, a small party to the right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. Bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, whom Trump has named as U.S. ambassador to Israel, is closely tied to a smaller faction in Israeli politics that is even further to the right.

Trump’s choice of ambassador is a drastic intrusion into Israeli politics on the side of a radical, anti-democratic fringe. The pick signals that Washington is abandoning the goal of a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on two states. It signals American assent, even support, for permanent denial of basic rights to Palestinians. In parallel, it undermines moderate Palestinians and empowers extremists.

Israel should be very worried about President Trump

Friedman’s tightest personal connection in Israel, by all accounts this week, is Ya’akov Katz, a founder of the settlement of Beit El near Ramallah and of the yeshiva (Talmudic seminary) there. Friedman is president of the U.S. fundraising arm of the Beit El yeshiva. In a radio interview Sunday, Katz said that he and Friedman were “like brothers … it’s a friendship that goes back decades.” Under the yeshiva’s auspices, Katz helped create Arutz 7, originally a pirate radio station, now a digital news platform feeding the echo chamber of hard-line settlers. A couple of terms back, Katz served in the Knesset as head of the National Union, a collection of ultra-nationalist splinter groups. In elections since then, afraid of not getting enough votes to make it into parliament on its own, the party has run as part of Jewish Home — and has put pressure on Bennett at signs of what it regards as ideological compromise.

Some of Friedman’s own most outrageous statements have been made in articles he wrote for Arutz 7 — his description of supporters of the dovish pro-Israel lobby J Street as “worse than kapos,” his accusation that President Obama emanates “blatant anti-Semitism,” his portrayal of Israel’s Arab citizens as disloyal freeloaders on its health system and universities. But he talks to the mainstream press as well. It was in an interview to Haaretz that Friedman said that “nobody really knows how many Palestinians live there,” meaning the West Bank. That’s not a throw-away line; it’s a pledge of allegiance to the demography-denial school of the Israeli right, which reduces Palestinian population figures to “prove” that annexation of the West Bank won’t create a binational state.

Gradations of intransigence on the Israeli right may seem irrelevant from afar, but they matter. Netanyahu’s claim to support a two-state agreement fits the classic definition of hypocrisy as the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Yet the tribute, exacted under American pressure, matters. It helps maintain support for a two-state solution as a political virtue in Israel, a centrist position — albeit one that can be realized only under a different political constellation.

The appointment of Friedman, the public statements he is likely to make once he arrives in Israel, the triumphant visits he would likely pay to settlements — all would shift the balance within the ruling coalition and possibly within Israeli politics as a whole. It would accelerate the trend toward annexation, which would mean the death of Israeli democracy — or the creation of a binational state binding two unreconciled peoples.

Meanwhile, Friedman’s arrival is likely to extinguish hope among Palestinians that they could achieve independence by diplomatic means — or perhaps by any peaceful means. I don’t care to lay out where this could lead. It scares me.

Trump’s choice of Friedman is reckless and irresponsible, which is not particularly surprising in view of everything else he’s done. But Israelis and Palestinians will pay the price for his recklessness. The announcement itself has already done harm. The Senate still has a chance to block the appointment, and to show that the United States has not positioned itself on Israel’s radical right.