WASHINGTON — Within an hour of President-elect Donald Trump announcing Thursday that David Friedman, his adviser and long-time friend, was his choice to be the next US ambassador to Israel, liberal Jewish groups let loose with scathing condemnations of the appointment.
“J Street is vehemently opposed to the nomination of David Friedman,” the organization’s president, Jeremy Ben Ami, said in a statement. “This nomination is reckless, putting America’s reputation in the region and credibility around the world at risk.” The group further vowed to fight Friedman’s confirmation in the Senate.
Meanwhile, the National Jewish Democratic Council tweeted: “Trump must stand for a strong US-Israel relationship and take it seriously. [There] hasn’t ever been a less experienced pick for US ambassador to Israel.”
While it was always unlikely that Trump, who vowed on the campaign trail to adopt a radically different posture on Israel than President Barack Obama’s, would appoint an envoy to the Jewish left’s satisfaction, the choice of a man whose views represent such a profound break with US foreign policy orthodoxy seemed to stir intense emotions.
Friedman, 57, ramped up speculation that Trump could follow through on his campaign pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In a statement Thursday, Friedman said he looked forward to taking up his diplomatic post in “the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem,” indicating Trump’s apparent intentness to do what a number of other presidential candidates have promised but failed to deliver once they took office.
Earlier this week, it was reported that the Trump team was already planning the relocation, including undertaking advance work on the project, after his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said it was “a very big priority for him.”
J Street supporters ‘far worse than kapos’
Friedman has been an outspoken and active supporter of the settlement movement, and has argued that Israel doesn’t face a “demographic threat” to its Jewish character if it fails to separate from the Palestinians.
Since 1967, official US policy — during both Republican and Democratic administrations — has opposed Israeli construction in areas that the Palestinians claim for their future state.
Obama, like the liberal pro-Israel community in the US, maintains that settlement expansion hobbles the prospect of a comprehensive two-state deal with the Palestinians, and that a failure to reach such an outcome would jeopardize Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
In addition to being a bankruptcy lawyer in New York, Friedman serves as president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, an organization that supports a large West Bank settlement just outside Ramallah.
Over the last year, he at times excoriated groups who express criticism of Israel’s settlement policy. This summer, Friedman accused J Street supporters of being “far worse than kapos” — Jews who assisted the Nazis during the Holocaust — in a column for the far-right Israel National News website.
“The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one,” he wrote in June. “But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas – it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”
Speaking before the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum earlier this month, Friedman refused to walk back his comparison, declaring those aligned with J Street are “not Jewish, and they’re not pro-Israel,” according to The New York Times.
The dovish advocacy group revisited that comment Thursday when it declared its disgust at the prospect of Friedman assuming one of the most delicate positions in US foreign policy.
“As someone who has been a leading American friend of the settlement movement, who lacks any diplomatic or policy credentials and who has attacked liberal Jews who support two states as ‘worse than kapos,’ Friedman should be beyond the pale for senators considering who should represent the United States in Israel,” Ben-Ami said.
Lara Friedman, the director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, did not mince words either, tweeting: “I don’t know about the Palestinians, but I know Jews who truly care about Israel’s security, democracy & place in the world are outraged.”
The Reform movement was more circumspect in its criticism.
Acknowledging it was important for the next US envoy to Israel have a close relationship with the president, as Friedman does with Trump, the Union of Reform Judaism’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, put out a statement warning the administration against moving the embassy without the Palestinians’ consent.
“While we share Mr. Trump’s view that the US Embassy belongs in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city, we also believe that timing is important, and thus, we are deeply concerned about the impact of any unilateral action, by any country, on the overall situation in the area,” he said.
Jacobs also asserted that the nomination cast doubt on the administration’s commitment to the two states, which successive US presidents have been trying for decades to attain.
“Mr. Friedman’s personal connection to and support of a number of organizations committed to building additional settlements in the West Bank certainly suggests that he will not be an advocate for a two-state solution,” he said. “Of course, his personal views are far less important than the policy of the US government, and so it is our fervent hope that under his leadership, the American commitment to… two states will not be diminished.”
In an interview with The Times of Israel in November, Friedman indicated that Trump would seek to forge a comprehensive peace deal between the two sides, but was open to alternatives outside the two-state framework.
Friedman also stated that, based on his personal discussions with Trump, “a two-state solution is not a priority” for the president-elect. “I don’t think he is wed to any particularly outcome,” he said. “A two-state solution is a way, but it’s not the only way.”