JERUSALEM – In his modest, soft-spoken and self-deprecating way, David Friedman, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel for the past four years, urged President Joe Biden and his team this weekend not to reverse the policies of the Trump administration or to make another flawed and dangerous deal with the mullahs in Iran.
“We're on the right track with Iran,” Friedman told thousands attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida, and a nationwide audience since his remarks were broadcast on C-SPAN.
“I mean, we are absolutely gaining in that battle. And frankly, what we learned over the past four years is that they can't be trusted. We caught them red-handed violating the agreement. And how in the world are you going to make a deal when they don't let you have access to their military installations?”
Friedman said the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign was working, both to make clear to Tehran that their malign activities came with a price, and to convince moderate Sunni Arab leaders to draw closer to the U.S. and make peace with Israel.
“To give all that up” would be a serious mistake, a sign of “sliding into retreat,” Friedman warned. “The ramifications are enormous.”
I was with Friedman last week as he pre-recorded the interview with Katie Pavlich of Fox News. The interview was shown to the CPAC conference on Saturday. Friedman, an observant Orthodox Jew, does not do interviews on Saturday.
The entire conversation was interesting, but I was especially struck by how pointed Friedman’s comments were about Biden and Iran.
So was Pavlich.
“Should we take what you said as a warning to the Biden administration, as they now try to change some of the policies and try to court Iran to get back into the nuclear agreement?” she asked.
Friedman demurred, saying, “Look, I wish I mattered enough to be able to warn the Biden administration.”
Nevertheless, even in his low-key way, he went on to stress “the reality is that Iran is a threat to the entire region. And while the Abraham Accords was very much a product of the opportunities and the optimism that the nations felt by joining together, it was also, to a certain extent, a function of a common threat, a common enemy.”
When the interview was over, I thanked Friedman for being such an effective ambassador and for helping the Trump administration make history here in Israel and throughout the region.
There have certainly been other good American ambassadors to Israel, I noted, but none have presided over such a significant and “game-changing” four-year period, to quote him from the interview.
Here are extended excepts from the interview. To watch in its entirety, please click here.
PAVLICH: Why is the relationship between the United States and Israel so important for this country and for the world?
FRIEDMAN: Look, I would argue Israel is America’s most important ally anywhere in the world, certainly in the region. One of our prior colleagues was the head intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security and he said something very profound. He said many times that, “Israel literally keeps Americans safe at home.” Our cooperation with Israel on intelligence matters – on matters of national security – is enormous. And it is really something that protects every single American because a lot of the threats that America faces are threats that come from the Middle East. And Israel really is the vanguard and an incredible friend of America that keeps America safe. So, at a very fundamental level, Israel is a very critical ally.
Apart from that, you know, the values that make America great – the Judeo-Christian values that informed our Founding Fathers – they all came right behind me, right behind where I’m standing. That’s where the prophets walked. That’s where the prophets preached. That’s where the Bible was written. And those values are at the core, I think, of American values. So, that’s why the relationship between America and Israel is so important, so profound and so enduring.
PAVLICH: Well, I don’t have to tell you that the Middle East and Israel have changed significantly over the past four years due to the positive policies that the Trump administration put into place. One of those being early on in the Trump administration in 2017 – he moved the U.S. Embassy officially to Jerusalem, something that lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle here in America have been talking about for years. He finally did it. Tell us about the significance of that.
FRIEDMAN: I think the move of the embassy really was the signature event of the Trump administration and our foreign policy because it really resonated throughout our foreign policy. What it said in a nutshell is that “America stands for the truth, it stands with its allies, and it does not flinch from its enemies or from threats of rogue nations or rogue actors.” And when the President made that decision, of course it was important here. Of course it was deeply appreciated by everyone in Israel, and by many, many in America. But it also, I think, was something that people took notice of in Iran and Russia and China and North Korea – all around the world – because they saw the President was not just a politician who made promises and then abandoned them, you know, at the first sign of pressure. The President followed through on his promises and he stood with an ally and he stood for the truth. And I think that was enormously important, again, not just for Israel, but for the entire world.
PAVLICH: And then, of course, after the embassy move – two years later – President Trump officially recognized the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory. Tell us about the significance of that move.
FRIEDMAN: Well, look, we need a strong Israel. It's in our absolute national security interest to have a strong Israel. Now, anyone who has been to the Golan Heights and anybody who has seen any of the battlefields that you can see from the Golan Heights – and understands the topography and the threats – knows that there is no way for Israel to have secure borders except through its sovereignty over the Golan Heights. So the President recognized something which was, again, consistent with the truth, consistent with Israel's national security interests and ours as well. And ultimately, I think, again, as you consider that a building block along the way, it showed the world that we were going to cut through the fog of esoteric and meaningless theories of international law that have never been well defined and never been accepted. And rather, you know, look at the region and look at the area in terms of who are our friends, who are our enemies, what are the threats, what are the strategic interests and ultimately what's best for the United States? And this decision certainly fell within all of those parameters.
PAVLICH: And finally, let’s talk about the Abraham Accords. We always hear about “peace in the Middle East.” The Trump administration actually made that happen. What I think is so interesting about the Abraham Accords, Ambassador, is that it’s not just a piece of paper signed by people in government, hoping that something works out. We’ve seen a warm welcoming between Israelis and those in the UAE. We’ve seen lots of travel. And so it’s a partnership between people, not just between governments on the level of the economy, national security, on trade, on technology – the list goes on and on. So, talk about how the Abraham Accords are significant in terms of lasting peace in the Middle East and what it means for the countries involved.
FRIEDMAN: Look, I think this is, you know – I hate to use the term – but it's a game changer. I think it has the potential to move the Middle East from a place of threats, a place of suffering, a place of violence to a place not just of peace, but a place where the Middle East can really join the community of nations and collectively, you know, contribute so much to the world. You know, when we stood with Israel, whether it was with Jerusalem, whether it was on the Golan Heights, whether it was on the communities in Judea and Samaria, everyone predicted that there would be an explosion. And they were right, in part, there was an explosion. But it was an explosion of peace, not an explosion of violence. Because nations recognized that ultimately they wanted to be part of this circle of trust where the United States had alliances with countries that were really rock-solid based upon common values, based upon common threats. And it wasn't much of a leap for other nations to say, well, we want some of that, too. We want to be part of it. So, of course, you know that the United Arab Emirates jumped in first. And after they jumped in and people saw, you know, the water was fine, you know, we got Bahrain. We got the Sudan. We got Morocco. We even made a deal with a Muslim country in Europe, in Kosovo. And what this ultimately says to the world is that Israel is not the problem. Israel is the solution. Israel has an enormous amount to offer.
That's what makes peace. It's a warm peace. It's a peace between people. People make peace. Governments don't make peace. Look, the peace agreement with Jordan is important, but it's not an agreement between people. And to some extent, that's true of Egypt, as well. This really is something which people have embraced. And I think, you know, people are kind of scratching their heads and asking themselves, “Why haven't we done it sooner? This is so obvious. And it's so advantageous. It's so enjoyable.” And I think ultimately this is the paradigm for the future.
Now, having said all that, it's brand new. You know, you have love affairs that begin with great romance. And then, ultimately, they can crash on the rocks of reality. And we've got to make sure that doesn't happen. So, as much as there is every reason to be encouraged that like this requires nurturing, it requires, you know, some fertilizer or some, you know, some help by the United States.
The United States has to be involved. And we're not going to do justice to these agreements if we start retreating from some of the positions that we've taken over the last 40 years. We have to continue to strongly support our allies and to be rock solid in our opposition to our enemies. If we start sliding back in this environment, you know, I don't want to take chances.
PAVLICH: Should we take what you said as a warning to the Biden administration, as they now try to change some of the policies and try to court Iran to get back into the nuclear agreement?
FRIEDMAN: Look, I wish I mattered enough to be able to warn the Biden administration. The reality is that Iran is a threat to the entire region. And while the Abraham Accords was very much a product of the opportunities and the optimism that the nations felt by joining together, it was also, to a certain extent, a function of a common threat, a common enemy.
And to the extent that the United States loses its ability to really maintain control over sanctions, over the strength that we have shown in opposition to Iran, what it does is it starts causing all these countries to start going back into their shells and thinking, well, we have to start thinking more about protecting ourselves. It drives a wedge in the openness, in the warmth and people start thinking about self-defense. Now, that's not a good message to send to all these countries, that they need to start thinking more about self-defense.
But we're on the right track with Iran. I mean, we are absolutely gaining in that battle. And frankly, what we learned over the past four years is that they can't be trusted. We caught them, you know, red-handed, you know, violating the agreement. And how in the world are you going to make a deal when they don't let you have access to their military installations? To give all that up? The ramifications are enormous.
PAVLICH: As we wrap up our time with you here at CPAC 2021, Mr. Ambassador, do you have any final thoughts about the U.S.-Israel relationship and the Middle East as a whole?
FRIEDMAN: The U.S.-Israel relationship is a blessing for Americans and for Israel. It's not something Americans have had forever. It's new. It's new for Americans. It's new for Israelis. It's, you know, 70 years old. It's grown dramatically over the last four years. The opportunities that it's presented for Americans at home and abroad – for art, for commerce, for security, for safety – are enormous. We are heading in a great direction and we're doing it while being truthful to the Judeo-Christian values that really informed and founded our nation. So, look, we're proud of that. We believe in it. But most importantly, we want it to continue to advance. And I hope everybody in the room will join with me and others and continue to support this relationship. I think not only is it important for our national security and our safety, but I think it will do wonders for our sense of meaning and purpose as human beings. So, to all those in attendance, sorry I couldn't be there, but blessings from Jerusalem and I hope to be there next year.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.