Trump's hard-line Israel ambassador pick will have to bend

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Story highlights

  • Senate panel OKs Trump's candidate for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman
  • Aaron David Miller: Hard-liner faces many counterweights to his pro-settlement views

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted Thursday to approve David Friedman as President Donald Trump's choice as ambassador to Israel. In the history of the US-Israel relationship, his nomination is by far the most controversial choice yet to be made by an American president. According to many, it's the most provocative as well.

The United States has had staunchly pro-Israeli envoys before, but no one like Friedman -- whose personal commitment and investment in the settlement enterprise and to Jerusalem as Israel's eternal capital -- has been so personal and ideological.
Indeed, the very nomination seems to reflect Trump's commitment to a fundamental change in the US relationship with Israel after the acrimony of the Obama years. (The full Senate will vote soon on Friedman's nomination.)
    But as an observer and participant in the US-Israeli relationship over the years, I'm betting that Friedman's role may not be nearly as consequential and damaging as some suggest. And here's why.

    Ambassadors don't make US policy

    And neither will Friedman. Clearly, unlike any past US ambassador, Friedman -- as a longtime friend of Trump's -- is in a very special category and would seek to carry enormous influence.
    Indeed, in the Trump transition team statement in December announcing his nomination, Friedman was quoted as saying how much he was personally looking forward to representing the United States from an embassy in Jerusalem -- a stunning and unprecedented aspirational declaration.
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    Still, ambassadors are meant to carry out, not create US policy. And we can see already on an issue like moving the embassy how the administration's enthusiasm -- one that might have even entailed moving it January 20 -- has waned.
    Ditto on what would have seemed to be Friedman's wholesale greenlighting of Israeli settlements.
    Indeed, as was to be expected, it wasn't any green light that got the attention; it was Trump's flashing yellow light during his press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nudging him to exercise restraint on settlements.

    One voice among many

    As a longtime friend, Friedman may have been one of the first voices Trump consulted on matters relating to Israel, but he surely won't be the only voice.
    Trump's campaigning has turned to governing, and there are many more voices in the mix -- some of whom will clearly be a counterweight to Friedman's strong pro-settlement views.
    Both Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be restraining voices; so will the Arab states on which the Trump administration is depending on to pursue its approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
    And then there's Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and close adviser and the putative point man for dealing with Israel and the peace process.
    One might think that Friedman will have something of an advantage over these White House influences because he will be on the ground meeting frequently with the Israeli government, particularly Netanyahu.
    But one thing the last two decades reveal is that US presidents and Israeli prime ministers have a strong tendency to conduct business outside of the ambassadorial channels and to identify senior officials in Washington and Jerusalem to serve as a secondary channel, or to do business themselves. The Clinton administration had a secure phone installed in former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's residence to facilitate such communication. Indeed, if the US ambassador is bypassed too many times, his credibility will suffer, and he'll be viewed as more of a cipher than a player.
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    An argument can be made that the ambassador to watch isn't Friedman at all but Ron Dermer, Israel's envoy to the United States, who not only is exceptionally close to Netanyahu but also has close ties to the Trump administration. The issue on the US side isn't really proximity to Netanyahu, but to Washington and the US President -- and there Dermer and Kushner will have a distinct advantage.

    Administration can't afford a lone ranger

    Friedman may eventually change some of his own positions -- at least publicly. He has already undergone something of a confirmation-hearing conversion -- retracting many of his hard-line positions during his Senate testimony, including agreeing that settlements aren't helpful to peace and opining that a two-state solution is the best path forward.
    It will be fascinating to see whether he will visit settlements and host prominent settlement leaders -- a practice off-limits for his predecessors. More likely, he's going to keep his visible support low-key, particularly in the event that Trump somehow manages -- against the odds -- to get something going on the peace process.
    It would be a cruel irony if Trump ends up using the pro-settlement Friedman as his channel to the settlers to persuade them to act with restraint on some kind of settlements freeze.
    The painful reality is that if Friedman wants to be remain relevant to both Trump and Netanyahu, he's going to have to be careful he doesn't legitimize the settler constituency to the Prime Minister's right or undercut his own President's seeming desire to cut the "ultimate deal" between the Israelis and Palestinians.
    Paradoxically, Friedman may be forced to temper his views, and rather than functioning as a hard-line, pro-settlement ideologue, he may end up -- as other US ambassadors have -- coloring very much inside the lines.