‘Sledgehammer’: How President Trump Found the Way to a Separate Peace in the Middle East
Friedman gives us a better understanding of the Middle East than many of the self-styled experts and career diplomats who lambasted his appointment.
‘Sledgehammer: How Breaking with the Past Brought Peace to the Middle East’
By David Friedman
Broadside Books, 272 pages
“There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world, without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace,” declared Secretary of State Kerry in 2016. “Everybody needs to understand that,” he added.
Less than four years later, the Trump administration helped broker the Abraham Accords between Israel and several of its Arab neighbors. How could Mr. Kerry and others of his ideological ilk have gotten it so wrong?
David Friedman’s brilliant new book, “Sledgehammer: How Breaking with the Past Brought Peace to the Middle East,” offers some clues. Mr. Friedman served as the American ambassador to Israel during the Trump administration.
In a brisk 272 pages, Mr. Friedman, a bankruptcy attorney by trade and an occasional columnist known for clear vision, gives us a better understanding of the Middle East than many of the self-styled experts and career diplomats who lambasted his appointment.
Mr. Friedman first met President Trump in 2004, when he assisted the future president with his business dealings in Atlantic City. Despite having little in common, the two men became friends. Mr. Friedman would go on to advise Mr. Trump during his 2016 presidential run.
After Mr. Trump won, Mr. Friedman’s request was to be ambassador to Israel, a country about which he was deeply passionate. His nomination, he notes, “was the first of a series of firsts.” It was, say, the first time that an ambassador to Israel was nominated before Inauguration Day.
It was also the first time that an ambassador to Israel was named among the first hundred or so appointments. And it was the first time that “a nominated ambassador to Israel had no prior diplomatic or government experience.” The latter bit ended up being crucial.
Mr. Friedman didn’t hold the “correct” views and he didn’t belong to the “right” club. An Israeli foreign affairs analyst, Shany Mor, has noted that “the establishment conversation on Israel and its neighbors has been dominated for more than 30 years by members of a guild who have recently come to be referred to (often with a certain measure of snark) as the peace processors.”
Mr. Friedman, who was also on record as supporting the right of Jewish people to settle in their ancestral homeland, Judea and Samaria, otherwise known as the West Bank, was decidedly not part of the guild. That turned out to be a key to success.
Not, though, before Mr. Trump’s decision to appoint Mr. Friedman was met with outrage. Major newspapers and organizations that are critical of Israel, like J Street, “made it their priority to defeat my nomination,” he notes.
J Street spent $100,000 to compile a dossier on the nominee, and five former ambassadors wrote a letter claiming that Mr. Friedman was unqualified for the post. It was all for naught, as Mr. Friedman was eventually confirmed.
Yet not before he was warned by Senator Rubio that he was being “confronted by an orthodoxy within the State Department and the ‘so-called smart people within the American foreign policy establishment.’” Later, Mr. Friedman confesses, “I realized how right he was.”
Ambassador Friedman would face constant hurdles with the guild that has dominated American foreign policymaking and Israel. He made it his business to confound the self-styled experts.
“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity; the State Department calls it diplomacy,” he quips. “I had a very different view of diplomacy. I had no interest in spending taxpayer money repeating failed strategies.”
Instead, his approach would be the Reaganesque strategy of achieving peace through strength. America’s relationship with Israel was not “an obstacle to be overcome,” but a “fulcrum from which we can move the world.”
Mr. Friedman believed that a closer embrace of Israel would encourage peace. He also believed that the Palestinian Authority, the entity that rules over the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank, should be called out for its support, financial and otherwise, of terrorist attacks.
Same with its long history of rejecting offers for peace in exchange for statehood. In the last 20 years alone, the P.A. has rejected no fewer than three American and Israeli proposals for a Palestinian state. While many in the foreign policy nomenklatura have failed to let these facts inform their approach, Mr. Freidman wouldn’t be one of them.
“The core of real diplomacy is trust,” he notes, “and trust is built with actions, not words.” These notions, while common sense to many Americans, were anathema to the peace processing guild. Never mind that they worked.
By bucking orthodoxy, Mr. Friedman and others in the Trump administration were able to achieve significant breakthroughs, culminating in the Abraham Accords and several Arab states recognizing, and making peace with, the Jewish state.
Mr. Friedman is unsparing in his assessments. He recounts several meetings with members of Congress who were disturbingly ill-informed about Israel. Other accounts give one pause. He quotes one State Department official as offering the following as “a free word of advice” — “don’t be so Jewish.”
“Sledgehammer” is a beautifully written and important contribution to the historical record. More than that it offers important lessons on peacemaking in a famously chaotic and dangerous region. One hopes that Mr. Friedman’s critics will read it.
Mr. Durns is a senior research analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.