Trump's New Extremist Ambassador to Israel Removes Fig Leaf from U.S. Middle East Policy

Posted Dec. 21, 2016

MP3 Interview with Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of the group Jewish Voice for Peace, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

ambassador

President-Elect Donald Trump’s appointments have enraged and worried many Americans no matter what their priorities, whether it’s health care, labor rights, environment and climate change, or other issues. He has given the nod to individuals in many cases who have promised to destroy the very agencies they’ve been appointed to lead.

In the realm of diplomacy, Trump has chosen as his ambassador to Israel the un-diplomatic David Friedman, his bankruptcy lawyer and someone who is to the right of Israel’s right-wing leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. Friedman supports more Israeli construction in the occupied West Bank; he advocates moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and he opposes a two-state solution, which the U.S. has claimed to support for decades, but which in reality has been undermined with its steadfast military support for Israel.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the most progressive Jewish organizations in the U.S., which calls for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem consistent with international law and equity. JVP supports the Palestinian-initiated Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as a way to reach those goals. Here, she explains how Friedman’s nomination is bringing together groups that have not always seen eye to eye, in order to oppose what they view as Trump’s disastrous choice for Palestinians, Israelis and for Americans working for Middle East peace.

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: What it does is confirm our worst fears about a Trump administration approach to Israel/Palestine because David Friedman is someone who represents the most extreme right in the Israeli political spectrum. He's actually far to the right of Prime Minister Netanyahu himself. What Trump is broadcasting with this pick is that he’s fully on board with the policy of apartheid and annexation and no concern for Palestinian rights. There's an argument you could make with this appointment that it's casting off the mask, because the U.S. has been supporting Israel while it's pursued these policies these last many years while we've continued to support them with military, financial, economic and diplomatic aid, so this is just casting off that mask and saying it openly, but I think that's going to come at a very, very high human cost, so it's a very distressing appointment.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You stole my thunder, because I was going to say that a Palestinian activist friend of mine commented on the appointment that it might be a good thing because it will make crystal clear U.S. support for Israel no matter what it does. Obama actually increased military aid to Israel, despite his well-known poor relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: I think that it does, to a certain extent, take off the mask. The U.S. has been essentially unconditionally supporting Israel; I mean it's often been critical in the last two years of Israeli settlement policies and various other moves Israel has made, but it's never translated into any concrete actions against it. So you could say this is taking off the mask and that might help clarify for organizations here in the U.S. as well as around the world, that the U.S. is no kind of broker for any just peace, but I also do think there's an enormous human cost to that and it offers the Netanyahu government enormous openness to being able to impose whatever policies they want that could be permanent or very hard to overturn. I don't think it's a good thing; I think it's very, very concerning, while at the same time I do see the opportunities it may present of us being able to work with a broader spectrum of organizations and a broader spectrum of people in the U.S. to fight the appointment and to make clear the reality of Israel's policies and the way the U.S. has supported them.

I think the other thing to think about is that this further isolates the U.S. in comparison to the rest of the world. So, for example, David Friedman has talked about moving our embassy to Jerusalem, and at this point the U.S. has kept our embassy in Tel Aviv, as every other country in the world does. And so, there’s an international consensus that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would be essentially saying to Israel that it's okay to annex and to keep the occupied territories, which it's had since 1967. So that's a really, really provocative move to make and would further isolate the U.S. from the international consensus and from international law. Now, that, again, may be an opportunity for those of us in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement – BDS – to put more pressure on Israel, but it certainly would be something that would be a terrible concern to Palestinians. And it's also bad for people in Israel who are seeking peace who are going to be disempowered by this move.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Speaking of working together with other organizations to oppose this nomination, I heard Friedman was excoriating J Street, which is a pretty moderate organization that calls itself pro-Israel and pro-peace, and I wonder if you could say what your relationship with J Street has been up to now, if any, and what may possibly change as a result of this appointment.

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Yeah, I mean, look, the first thing I have to say is that the kind of language that David Friedman was using toward J Street was absolutely appalling and reprehensible. He called J Street members and J Street itself "kapos," which is one of the worst insults you can hurl at someone, you know, it was basically saying it was the equivalent of the Jewish people who were forced to help the Nazis in the concentration camps. It's the farthest thing from diplomatic language, but the language that I'm concerned about is the idea that those kinds of insults and dismissals of very significant swaths of the Jewish community is a legitimate thing to do, which it absolutely is not.

Our relationship to J Street has been one of, you know, there's a lot of overlap, I think, in terms of people who have sometimes started with J Street and moved on to JVP. They take a different approach than we do. We've been on opposite sides many, many times because they have actively worked against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. That's a big concern, but at the same time they're opposing David Friedman's appointment so sometimes we come out on the same side of issues. We're eager to work with different people that we can when we come out on the same side of the issue and when we come out on different sides of the issue we are going to oppose them actively. I think the Trump administration is going to re-align a lot of organizations in the Jewish community and far beyond the Jewish community.

There is a lot of concern about the fact that a lot of the bigger Jewish institutions like AIPAC and the Jewish federations have not condemned, for example, Steve Bannon, who ran Breitbart [media outlet] before he worked for Trump and who is now the chief strategist for Trump, and he's welcomed into Breitbart and give a platform to people who are Islamophobic and racist and misogynist and anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism is reaching a proximity to power that it hasn't had in my generation, and to my shame and to be honest, rage, a lot of those bigger Jewish institutions have not called that out, and that's because they feel as long as people like that are supporting Israel, they don't need to worry about the actual anti-Semitism they're promoting. So I think organizations like J Street and others on the more progressive or liberal side of the spectrum are going to be allies in those fights in terms of calling out both the Islamophobia and the anti-Semitism that we're starting to see.

For more information, visit Jewish Voice For Peace website at jewishvoiceforpeace.org.

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