David Friedman was Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel. But that job title alone fails to adequately convey his proximity to the 45th president and his impact on US policy. Their time together marked a repudiation of Barack Obama’s vision for the Middle East. Sledgehammer, Friedman’s memoir, reminds the reader of all of this as insistently as its title suggests.
With Friedman’s assistance, the US helped forge the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and four Arab countries. The US also moved its embassy to Jerusalem and left the Iran nuclear deal. As for the Palestinians, put it this way: they no longer occupy rent-free space in the Republican conscience.
Unlike other Trump appointees, Friedman was often in the room when it happened. To all intents and purposes, he was not subordinate to Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state. And as an enthusiastic backer of Israeli settlements in occupied territories, he had little interest in preserving the status quo.
More than a half-century had elapsed since 1967 and the six-day war. Israel’s hold on the West Bank had grown organic. The Oslo Accords gave way to the second intifada and Gaza continued to smolder, despite Israel’s withdrawal more than a decade before. Godot had failed to arrive. Friedman’s book with its unsubtle title has a subtitle too: “How Breaking with the Past Brought Peace to the Middle East”.
Obviously, he overstates. The Palestinians are not, of course, content. War rages in Yemen. Drones and missiles hit the Emirates. Things between Israel and Iran can get worse and probably will.
Friedman was Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer. When Trump announced his presidential campaign, Friedman was doubtful. Both men venerated their fathers but, as Friedman acknowledges, they had little else in common. The author is still married to his first wife. Religion is central to his life. He is an Orthodox Jew, the son of a rabbi. While ambassador, his daughter made aliyah. That is, she moved to Israel and became a citizen.
Friedman quotes a senior but unidentified state department aide as telling him: “Don’t be so Jewish. You represent the United States of America … Just a free word of advice.” Suffice to say, Friedman was not amused. Although he held a presidential appointment, he was not part of the club.
Sledgehammer is also about ethnic grievance and expectations of Jewish solidarity – perhaps misplaced. Before joining the Trump administration, Friedman branded Obama antisemitic and trashed J Street, a liberal Jewish group, as “worse than kapos” – Jewish prisoners who worked as guards in Nazi concentration camps. Such intemperate comments came with a political cost. The Senate confirmed him by the narrowest of margins, 52-46.
On the page, Friedman says those were sincere expressions. He used the term “kapos”, he says, because he felt “J Street had betrayed the Jewish people”. Elsewhere, he admonishes American Jews against criticizing the Israeli government. He laments a growing schism among US Jews, even while describing his own testy relationship with the Reform movement.
In 2020, American Jews went for Joe Biden by nearly 40 points but Trump was the clear favorite in Orthodox enclaves. In Israel, Trump is lionized. “Loved” is Friedman’s word.
He likes wielding his sledgehammer at the left. The right, not so much.
He castigates Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, progressive Democratic congresswomen, for hostility to Israel. As ambassador, he was fine with an attempt to stop them entering Israel as part of a congressional delegation.
On the other hand, he has nothing to say about Charlottesville in August 2017, its tiki torches and cries of “Jews will not replace us” and Trump’s view that there were “very fine people” on the neo-Nazi side on that day of violence and shame.
Friedman’s outrage appears selective.
He is also silent on Trump delivering a tart “fuck him” to Benjamin Netanyahu – Israel’s former prime minister and a Friedman friend – in an interview memorialized in Barak Ravid’s book, Trump’s Peace.
Instead, Friedman swings repeatedly at Mahmoud Abbas, challenging the Palestinian leader’s desire to reach an agreement with Israel.
Once again, Trump might well disagree. Trump told Ravid he believed Netanyahu “did not want to make peace. Never did.” As for Abbas, “We spent a lot of time together, talking about many things. And it was almost like a father. I mean, he was so nice, couldn’t have been nicer.”
Friedman was particularly close to Netanyahu, so much so that lines could blur. According to Ravid, Friedman sat in on Israeli government meetings until he was tossed out by cabinet members. Friedman’s memoir does nothing to dispel that report.
He describes his efforts to help Netanyahu cobble together a government. He zings Avigdor Lieberman, former Netanyahu confidant and current Israeli finance minister, for refusing to come to the struggling prime minister’s rescue. The fact Netanyahu was then under a legal cloud and now stands on trial for corruption escapes real mention.
Elsewhere, Friedman criticizes Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister and Netanyahu’s jilted coalition partner. Although Gantz had been chief of staff of Israel’s military, says Friedman, he was not the politician Netanyahu was. Then again, Friedman also expresses his gratitude for his relationship with Gantz, who he describes as “6ft 4in and ruggedly handsome, an unusual look for an Israeli politician”. Trump too has praised Gantz, albeit at Netanyahu’s expense.
What Friedman does next will be interesting. Like Trump, he has left New York for Florida. His book jacket posts a blurb from Nikki Haley, formerly governor of South Carolina and a potential candidate for the Republican nomination if Trump does not seek it. Friedman has also described Ron DeSantis, of Florida, as Israel’s greatest friend among all 50 current governors.
Friedman is far from finished. Sledgehammer is not just a memoir. It is a well-written audition for 2024 and beyond.