Photo Credit: Courtesy
Ambassador Friedman in Jerusalem last week.

“I hope and pray that what we accomplished will endure.”

 

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The title of “Ambassador” is one that typically follows official representatives of America abroad long after they leave the position. For David Friedman, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel under President Trump, the appellation remains as apt as ever.

An Orthodox Jew, Friedman had a successful career as a bankruptcy attorney and was a supporter of Israeli causes on both sides of the Green Line before being tapped as ambassador. He continues to be a strong voice on Israel and world affairs who is refreshingly unafraid to speak his mind (albeit more diplomatically than his former boss).

Friedman recently published a memoir of sorts, titled Sledgehammer: How Breaking with the Past Brought Peace to the Middle East (Broadside Books). The Jewish Press spoke to him about his latest endeavors and some of the pressing issues impacting America and Israel.

 

Your new book was released just last month, and so much has happened on the world stage in the weeks since. What is your view on Russia’s war against Ukraine and America’s response?

It’s heartbreaking – and, unfortunately, it was avoidable. Putin took Crimea during the Obama Administration and is now attacking the rest of Ukraine under Biden. In both cases, he perceived a weak and inept U.S. government that would not intervene meaningfully in Russia’s assault.

With Russia’s proxy, Syria, on its northern border, Israel is walking a delicate balance: sending tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine and attempting to be a mediator, while refusing to send Ukraine military equipment or speak out too strongly against Russia. Is this a wise strategy? And is it just?

Israel is doing its best to thread the needle between offering appropriate, indeed extensive, humanitarian aid and avoiding a conflict with Russia, which controls Syrian airspace. Relative to the risks it faces, Israel is acting appropriately.

The Biden team made no secret of their plans to reenter the Obama administration’s Iran deal, which Trump had walked away from – a matter you identified as your chief concern when Biden took office. What seemed like a theoretical threat to some at that time is now more real than ever. How do you explain the willingness of Western leaders to knowingly enable Iran’s nuclear empowerment? Is it naiveté, or something more sinister?

Part of this is simply reflexive anti-Trumpism, and part of this is the fact that almost all of Biden’s appointees on this file were architects of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, popularly known as the Iran deal]. Either way, the United States is making a huge mistake in moving forward with a deal that inevitably will result in a nuclear Iran.

How dangerous is the Iran deal to Israel, with threat of a nuclear attack on one hand and the potential diplomatic fallout on the other if Israel swoops in to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities?

It is extraordinarily dangerous, especially now that the U.S. under Biden is signaling that it will never confront a nuclearized nation. When Biden promises that Iran will never have a nuclear weapon, those appear to me to be empty words.

You’re justifiably proud of the Abraham Accords negotiated by the Trump Administration during your tenure, which is the major focus of your book. Now, two years later, what’s the status of the relations between Israel and those friendlier Arab neighbors?

The relationships are excellent and expanding, in terms of security cooperation, commercial activity, and, perhaps most important, people-to-people engagement. It is a very warm peace.

The Biden Administration turned 180 degrees away from Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” approach to the Palestinians. It must be difficult to see the work you did essentially abandoned. What has that experience been like? To what extent do you see a lasting impact to the changes you made on the ground, including movement of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem?

I hope and pray that what we accomplished will endure. The changes we made in U.S.-Israel policy were in the best interests of both nations and brought much peace and prosperity to the region.

From lawyer to diplomat and now venture capitalist – tell us about your new Israel-based investment firm and what you hope to accomplish.

Liberty Strategic Capital is a new private equity fund headed by former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. I am excited about being a partner in the fund and we are hard at work identifying and investing in opportunities in Israel and throughout the world.

Does this new venture mean you’ll now be spending more time in your home in Jerusalem?

We [Friedman and his wife Tammy] had always planned on spending several months each year in Jerusalem. We love Jerusalem!

More than a decade ago, Israel was dubbed the “start-up nation,” but in the last few years it has been losing ground to other countries such as Estonia, Finland, and South Korea, with the number of new startups dropping since 2016. What is behind this decline, and how can Israel get back out in front?

From my perspective, Israel remains one of the preeminent venues for breakthrough technologies that help make the world a safer and healthier place.

America is in the throes of a culture war, and the forces of “wokeism” have made major inroads in education, academia, sports, the corporate world, and so on. But pushback seems to be growing. Where is this conflict headed? Could the pendulum eventually swing back in the other direction?

The movement clearly has already begun for parents to reclaim the responsibility of educating their children, and for people rather than governments to be accountable for personal choices. I expect that the sentiments driving this movement will be reflected in the next election cycle.

Unfortunately, Jews are being targeted, in many cases quite openly, across the United States. Is this connected to the rise of far-left Democrats in office? Should American Jews be afraid for their future?

Unfortunately, antisemitism remains a major problem in America. Jews should be concerned but must stand up unapologetically and proudly for their rights. Antisemites are bullies you can only defeat them by confronting them and showing no fear.

The coronavirus pandemic saw many democratic countries engaged in an unprecedented assault on individual liberties. As a lawyer, does this concern you? What does it portend for the future of the “free world”?

I am concerned [that] those who claim to be the most liberal are in fact taking the most repressive positions on freedom of speech and religion. In America, the ends have never justified the means. Many in America have forgotten that lesson.

You knew Trump from way back, having represented his company as an attorney before he became president. Are you still in touch with him, with Jared Kushner, or with any of the others with whom you worked closely as ambassador?

I remain in touch with many of my friends in government, including Jared Kushner and the President.

Any thoughts on who we’ll see at the top of the Republican ticket in 2024? Might you ever be pressed back into government service in some capacity?

I won’t speculate on 2024. It was my greatest honor to serve my country and I would be privileged to do so again.

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Ziona Greenwald, a contributing editor to The Jewish Press, is a freelance writer and editor and the author of two children's books, “Kalman's Big Questions” and “Tzippi Inside/Out.” She lives with her family in Jerusalem.