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January 14, 2021 6:58 am
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Two Davids in the New York Times

avatar by Jerold Auerbach

Opinion

A taxi passes by in front of The New York Times head office, Feb. 7, 2013. Photo: Reuters / Carlo Allegri / File.

While politicians, lawyers, and editors fiercely debated whether President Trump had committed the impeachable offense of inciting violence against the government of the United States, New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief David M. Halbfinger focused on David M. Friedman, about to retire as United States Ambassador to Israel. In a six-column article (January 10) Halbfinger recognized Friedman as “one of America’s most influential envoys,” who had served as the president’s chief adviser on the Jewish state and guided “the radical overhaul of White House policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Friedman’s access to President Trump, Halbfinger wrote, “brought unusual power for an ambassador, which he exploited to press an approach intended to get the Palestinians to lower their expectations.”

Halbfinger explored — clearly without enthusiasm — “the seemingly endless list of political giveaways bestowed upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters on the Israeli right” by the Trump administration. Among the “giveaways” was Ambassador Friedman’s strong recommendation that the American embassy be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby recognizing the ancient Jewish holy city where King David reigned as Israel’s capitol. “Casting aside any notion of evenhandedness,” Halbfinger writes, recognition “broke with decades of American policy and, critics said, got no concessions from Israel in return.” No critics were identified.

Another “giveaway” was recognition of Jewish settlements as part of Israel, not illegal impediments to the peace that Palestinians had violently rejected before the first settlement appeared. A “plum” for Israel, it was “widely perceived” (Halbfinger does not say by whom) as “a campaign gift” for Netanyahu. Friedman “made a point” of visiting settlements, assuring residents that “they would never face evacuation and that the United States no longer saw them as thieves of stolen land.” He even favored Israeli annexation of “large chunks of the West Bank,” but under pressure he settled instead for the recent normalization of relations with four Arab countries.

Interviewed by Halbfinger, Friedman “exulted in how prolifically and, he argued, irrevocably” the Trump administration had redefined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their meeting, Halbfinger pointedly noted, took place “in a building that had been home to the US mission to the Palestinians” – until Friedman disbanded it. One might wonder whether, by that reasoning, Halbfinger’s presence in the building also implicated him.

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Friedman, identified as “a blunt-spoken rabbi’s son … who relishes an argument and comes across as harboring few inner doubts,” had previously served as Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer. That relationship, Halbfinger surmises (without any supporting evidence), emboldened Friedman to “short-circuit ordinary procedures and the chain of command.” It provided “unusual power,” which Friedman “exploited to press an approach intended to get the Palestinians to lower their expectations.” He was certain that his effort “injected a tremendously needed dose of realism into the Palestinian psyche about what’s achievable and what’s not.”

Halbfinger was not convinced. He received support from Husam Zomlot, former head of the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, who charged Friedman with “destroying hopes for a two-state solution” — as if Palestinians had ever demonstrated even the slightest inclination to accept that outcome.

History will judge whether Ambassador Friedman was the nefarious power behind the Trump throne on Israeli-Palestinian relations that Halbfinger implies. For now, Friedman is deservedly recognized as an unrelenting advocate for the security of Israel and the return of Jews to their ancient capital and Biblical homeland. Donald Trump may be his own worst enemy, departing from the White House in fury and shame. But he is likely to be remembered as Israel’s most supportive presidential friend since Harry S. Truman recognized the fledgling Jewish state moments after its proclamation of independence. David M. Friedman, his Ambassador to Israel, made that possible.

As for David M. Halbfinger, he joins the lengthy list of New York Times Jerusalem Bureau chiefs and correspondents, stretching back nearly a century, whose self-appointed role is to criticize Israel for its (imagined) moral failings.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.

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