David Friedman, whose appointment as the next US ambassador to Israel was officially confirmed by the Senate a few days ago, greeted me at the top floor as I arrived to interview him several months before the presidential election. He specializes in bankruptcy, and his biggest client is Donald Trump. The two have been associated for 30 years, as Friedman handled all of Trump’s dozens of bankruptcies. He also followed his daughter Ivanka along her conversion process and traveled with her to Israel when she felt like buying a hotel in Tel Aviv and placing the Trump sign on it (something that did not eventually happen). He has always been around the family—a lawyer, a friend, and the person who knows just how lonely Trump really is. He has seen the man who is always so full of hot air end his day with no friends, and has always been there to lend a sympathetic ear. For years.
When Trump decided to run for president, Friedman was rather surprised but glad to join the disorganized campaign as the person responsible for ties with Jews and the State of Israel. In our meeting, he showed me the family photos: pictures from his private album hanging on the wall, his good-looking Canadian-born wife and his children, some of whom wear kippot and live in settlements. He is a soft-spoken, strong-minded, informed, cultured person. A man who knows how to speak the language of Tel Aviv—which he says is his favorite city in the world—who is proficient in the dialects of Jewish Hebron, and who is now supposed to bring these two worlds together.
I knew that Friedman was right-wing, I just didn’t know how far he had gone: The things he said sounded like the political doctrine of the Beit El settlers—against two states for two people, against a compromise, against an agreement; one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; an annexation of the West Bank; a united Jerusalem serving as Israel’s eternal capital. He didn’t see it as an apartheid and didn’t think that the occupation was an injustice, but rather a historical rectification.
When I asked him if he did not dread the fact that a Jewish democratic state would not be able to exist as a binational state, he pulled out documents with numbers showing that an Arab majority in that one state is impossible. On other occasions, he was even more radical: He called J street supporters “kapos” and said that former US President Barack Obama had thrown Israel to the dogs.
The Jewish communities in the US, which have a liberal majority, were shocked by his nomination. They signed petitions against him and argued that his appointment would be a disaster. And then came the changeover, and no one can tell if he sobered up or if he was just putting on an act: Friedman sat in the Senate hearing and renounced everything he had said in the past. Suddenly, he was in favor of the two-state solution, apologized for insulting J Street people and sounded as moderate as a Peace Now activist.
Trump loudly announced that he was going to bring peace, and began making it clear to Israel a bit more quietly that the settlement party was over. From now on, Friedman will be his mouthpiece, and there is no better person to bring the news to the settlers, as he is one of them. If he has undergone a dramatic change, he may succeed in changing some of them, too. Suddenly, his appointment seems like a brilliant idea.