David Friedman’s “Sledgehammer”: A Lesson in Principled Diplomacy

March 9, 2022

This article was first published in Jüdische Rundschau in German.

German Jews who love Israel already know from the work of Ambassador Richard Grenell that Donald Trump had a knack for picking unconventional, outspoken pro-Israel Ambassadors.

While widely criticized by left-wing media, Grenell was praised in these pages for being an unapologetic defender of Israel. He pressured the German government to finally ban Hezbollah–and succeeded; he proudly wore a kippah in solidarity after anti-Semitism commissioner Felix Klein warned Jews not to wear kippahs in public; and he made sure German businesses know there is a hefty price to pay—financially and morally–for bypassing American sanctions to do business with the Jew-hating mullahs. Some argued his diplomacy was “confrontational,” including in regard to his criticism of Nordstream 2, but it was exactly his muscled diplomacy that produced results that in the end served Germany as well. Were he still in Berlin today, it’s likely the Ukraine-Russia crisis would have been averted.

Anyone familiar with Grenell’s leadership can find a similar style in Trump’s go-to man in Jerusalem, David Friedman, upon reading Friedman’s memoir, “Sledgehammer.” Both diplomats were staunch advocates of Trump’s “American First” agenda, and both showed that standing up for Israel was squarely in line with that agenda, even as it coalesced with their personal and religious beliefs, with Grenell being evangelical Christian and Friedman being a modern Orthodox Jew. In his memoir, Friedman articulates how the Biblical heritage that transpired on the land of Israel is essential to American founding principles.

“Israel is our ultimate history,” he writes, “and if, God Forbid, that history is canceled, our national foundation will be nothing but sand.”

Both diplomats already signaled their lack of conventionality at the swearing-in ceremony. Grenell pledged an oath on a huge family bible, his partner Matt Lashey by his side (prompting a blogger to joke that Vice President Mike Pence was deporting a gay couple). Friedman, donning a kippah, his wife Tammy by his side, “affirmed” on his family Bible since swearing is forbidden in Judaism except in special cases.

Both diplomats kick-started their jobs hanging out with pop legends. After Britney Spears’ concert in Berlin, the pop star’s dancers hung out at the Dahlem mansion. Friedman jammed backstage with the band “Aerosmith.” But their legacies are remembered for more than just celebrity hangouts and extravagant fourth of July parties (which Grenell made unabashedly pro-American and Friedman made unabashedly kosher). They didn’t come to world capitals to party.

“Sledgehammer,” named for the metaphoric tool needed to break through the foreign policy establishment’s stale thinking on the Middle East, combines Biblical erudition, riveting anecdotes, and insider information to dramatize a pro-Israel, “America First” ideology in action. Friedman was so pro-Israel that he even prompted one State Department official to advise him: “Don’t be so Jewish.”

At times, Friedman came across as a better diplomat for Israel than Israeli leaders, like when he suggested to Prime Minister “Bibi” Netanyahu that he play for Trump a montage of terror-loving statements made by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to ensure that Trump doesn’t fall for his “nice guy, peace-loving” act. It worked. Friedman explained that it was in America’s interest to ensure Trump didn’t make decisions based on false assumptions. In another instance, Friedman, with Trump’s agreement, convinced Bibi that he’d be amiss to allow, out of respect for America, anti-Israel congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to enter Israel on a biased tour.

In the chapter “Donald and Me,” Friedman recounts how he got to know Trump as his bankruptcy lawyer. His personal esteem for “Donald” solidified when, in 2005, Trump travelled in his limousine in stormy conditions to pay Friedman a shiva (condolence) call after the death of his father, a very pro-Israel Conservative (Masorti) rabbi in New York. They bonded over their mutual love for their fathers. Later, Trump became impressed with Friedman’s own “art of the deal” skills when, in just a ten minute phone call, Friedman maneuvered opposing counsel to settle a case for a gain of $23 million in Trump’s favor. In an instance of Divine Providence meeting human action, Friedman lobbied for the position of ambassador to Israel, and got it.

With a delicate mixture of humility and pride, Friedman makes it known that he was greatly responsible for Trump’s very pro-Israel turn. He had already gotten a head start in transforming Republican policy when he was appointed advisor to the Trump campaign on Israel matters along with Jason Greenblatt. They removed the reference of the two-state solution from the party platform and added the recognition of Jerusalem. Friedman came up with the idea to re-outfit the American consulate in Jerusalem as the American Embassy to expedite the move from Tel Aviv. He convinced the President that acting on Congress’s 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act served America’s interest because it showed that America fulfills promises, cannot be threatened by terrorism, and stands by its allies. The predictions of massive violence following the move never came true.

Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was part of the old State Department thinking, but ultimately, Trump deferred to Friedman, whom he trusted. It was only when Mike Pompeo replaced Tillerson that the stage was set for American policies that were the fulfillment of dreams of the staunchly pro-Israel camp, like recognizing Israel sovereignty over the Golan Heights and legitimizing Israeli “settlements.”

Mixing realpolitik with principle, Friedman and his team ultimately created conditions for the Abraham Accords. He explains how the “Peace Through Prosperity” plan introduced in January 2020 was largely a strategic mechanism to create movement and political capital. It allowed for Israel to apply sovereignty over Area C (Israeli-controlled areas in Judea and Samaria), a possible move condemned by the German parliament in July 2020. The credible concerns over such a move prompted the United Arab Emirates to make peace with Israel if it suspended plans to apply sovereignty. Bahrain, Sudan, Kosovo, and Morocco followed.

Trump’s men in Berlin and Jerusalem show how Trump’s “America First” approach can change a geopolitical landscape—for the better. Friedman’s successor, Tom Nides, will likely not do, even by his own admission, what Friedman and Trump probably could’ve gotten done in a second term: peace with Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and maybe even Pakistan and Lebanon.

In an interview with the Times of Israel, Nides said that he sees part of his job as strengthening Israel as a Jewish and democratic state by supporting the two-state solution. His approach is: “Do the right thing, don’t be a jerk and try to be a nice person.”

To avoid unnecessary tension, he won’t visit Jewish “settlements” (unlike Friedman and Pompeo who set precedents with their visits to those communities).

“I want people after a couple of years to say, hey, I don’t know if he got much done, but he certainly wanted to do the right thing,” Nides said. “That’s all I really care about.”

According to the elites, Friedman and Grenell were not “nice guys” but hammer-wielding jerks smashing their way through the capitals. But they didn’t care if The New York Times wrote hit pieces about them if it meant they could protect America and bring peace. Let’s hope, for the sake of America, Germany, and Israel, that Grenell’s successor, Amy Gutmann, won’t be too nice.

Friedman didn’t come just wanting to do the right thing. He came to do it. That included, at the end of the day, peace in the Middle East.

Orit Arfa is a journalist and author based in Berlin. Visit her website at www.oritarfa.com.

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