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Former US envoy says Israel is now 'wedge issue' in American politics

In interview with Jerusalem Post, David Friedman says 'uniform support for Israel is being challenged' in the United States
Friedman said it was him who made sure Trump was aware of the issue of moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.
Friedman dismissed the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian talks under Biden (AFP/File photo)

Former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman has said that Israel has "become a wedge issue" in American politics since the presidency of Donald Trump.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post published on Wednesday, Friedman said that "there was not a place to land this issue in a way that would have great consensus" during his tenure as ambassador from May 2017 to January 2021.

"Had we reached out to get more buy-in from the Left, we would have lost the support of the Right," he told the Post, referring to some of Trump's controversial moves in favour of Israel, including moving the US embassy, declaring West Bank settlements not illegal, and recognising the occupied Golan Heights as Israel's sovereign territory.

US liberal supporters of Israel have been accusing Trump and Republicans of using Israel as a domestic political tool to rebuke Democrats and question their commitment to the alliance.

Trump himself had repeatedly denounced Democrats and called them "anti-Israel" over the rise of progressives critical of Israeli government policies. In 2019, the former president sparked outrage and accusations of antisemitism when he said that Jewish Americans who vote for the Democratic party have "great disloyalty".

'Uniform support'

After the Post published the interview with Friedman on Wednesday, many critics noted that it was the Trump administration that turned Israel into a "wedge issue".

"Gotta love this - as if the Trump administration had nothing at all to do with it," Shalom Lipner, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council said in a tweet

The Trump administration pushed the already staunch bipartisan support for Israel in Washington to its brink, leading to dissent from some Democrats against moves seen as violations of international law that would threaten US interests in the region. 

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One of these moves included the Trump administration declaring in 2019 that Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank are not "inconsistent with international law", reversing a then-41-year legal opinion that had been the basis of US policy.

Friedman said that while bipartisanship is important, finding the "lowest common denominator" in negotiations is not worth it.

"You cannot abandon principles to achieve great consensus," he said, adding that "it is clear… that uniform support for Israel in the US is being challenged".

Still, the former envoy noted that Trump's decision to move the country's embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had been met with bipartisan support in Congress, and the administration of US President Joe Biden has said it will keep the embassy there.

Friedman said it was he who made sure that moving the embassy to Jerusalem was a priority for Trump.

Peace negotiations

Friedman also said that he does not believe the Biden administration will call on Israel to return to the negotiating table in peace talks with the Palestinian leadership, nor will he ask Israel to make any concessions.

"I don’t think anyone really thinks there is an opportunity today for there to be a peace agreement," the former ambassador said. "The parties are extremely far apart… I don’t think anyone thinks that now is the right time to push for peace negotiations."

Biden has said he plans to reverse some of the previous White House's policies towards Palestinians - namely, by restoring aid to the Palestinians and reopening diplomatic relations between the US and Palestine.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price also said last month that recent normalisation agreements between Israel and four Arab countries cannot replace peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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"While we support normalisation between Israel and countries in the Arab world, it's also not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that's very important," Price said at a media briefing.

Still, Friedman said Trump's "deal of the century" plan to end the conflict, which was vehemently rejected by Palestinians, would be the starting point for future talks.

The deal would allow Israel to keep all of its West Bank settlements and annex the Jordan Valley - both illegal under international law - in exchange for establishing a disjointed Palestinian state with no control over its borders or airspace.

"The plan maximises Palestinian autonomy and their opportunity for propensity while minimising the security risks of the State of Israel," he told the Post.

Several prominent Democrats had opposed the proposal when it was announced, saying that it was a one-sided deal for Israel that undermines "decades of bipartisan US policy and international law".