Panel clears Friedman for full Senate vote as US envoy to Israel
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'This is by far the most contested vote on a nominee for US ambassador to Israel ever'

Panel clears Friedman for full Senate vote as US envoy to Israel

Trump’s ambassador pick approved in Senate Foreign Relations Committee; only New Jersey’s Democratic senator breaks ranks to vote yes

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

David Friedman, confirmed as US Ambassador to Israel, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
David Friedman, confirmed as US Ambassador to Israel, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved David Friedman to be US ambassador to Israel on Thursday, sending his nomination to the full Senate for a final vote on his confirmation.

The 12-9 committee vote was split almost entirely along party lines, with every single Republican member voting in favor of the 57-year-old Long Island Native, and every Democrat voting against — except for New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez.

Friedman’s nomination will now go to Senate chamber, though it is not yet clear when the vote will take place. He is likely to be approved, as there would have to be at least three Republican defections to block his confirmation.

Aside from Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the only speakers at the meeting were Democrats who opposed Friedman’s nomination.

They cited many of the concerns raised by liberal Jewish groups opposed to Friedman, including his past skepticism of the two-state solution and his deep philanthropic investment in the settlement movement.

Most prominently mentioned was Friedman’s past insults of Jews with whom he doesn’t agree. Friedman had called J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, “worse than kapos,” the Jewish Nazi collaborators.

J Street, during its annual conference last month, delivered the committee 40,000 signatures on a petition opposing Friedman.

“The last thing we need in this position is somebody who has a penchant for over the top hyperbolic and even false statements,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

In this July 23, 2015 file photo, Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. is seen during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill to review the Iran nuclear agreement. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
In this July 23, 2015 file photo, Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. is seen during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill to review the Iran nuclear agreement. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the lead Democrat on the committee, who is Jewish and is among the closest Democrats to the pro-Israel lobby, said Friedman’s appointment would undercut efforts to maintain a unified, bipartisan pro-Israel posture in Congress.

“There are those who are trying to divide us and make Israel a partisan political issue,” he said. “I don’t believe that Mr. Friedman can be that unifying person.”

Corker, perhaps the most skeptical Republican during Friedman’s confirmation hearing earlier this year, said Friedman’s closeness to President Donald Trump – he has been his lawyer for over a decade – helped qualify him for the position.

“Mr. Friedman is an impassioned advocate for America and for strengthening the mutually beneficial bond between the United States and Israel,” Corker said. “The president needs an ambassador who shares his vision and confidence.”

There was a brief disruption of the voting session by the left-wing group Code Pink.

Ever since Trump announced Friedman as his pick to serve as the US envoy to Israel in December 2016, the nomination has generated intense controversy.

Donald Trump and attorney David Friedman exit the Federal Building, following an appearance in US Bankruptcy Court on February 25, 2010, in Camden, New Jersey. (Bradley C. Bower/Bloomberg News, via Getty Images/JTA)
Donald Trump and attorney David Friedman exit the Federal Building, following an appearance in US Bankruptcy Court on February 25, 2010, in Camden, New Jersey. (Bradley C. Bower/Bloomberg News, via Getty Images/JTA)

As an Israel policy adviser to candidate Trump, Friedman became known as a firebrand with a hard-line view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and who frequently hurled incendiary insults toward those with whom he disagreed.

During his confirmation hearing last month, however, the former bankruptcy lawyer said he felt remorse over his rhetoric and tried to convince the senators it was not indicative of his true self.

“These were hurtful words and I deeply regret them. They’re not reflective of my nature, or my character,” he said.

J Street, the liberal Jewish group whose members Friedman had referred to as “worse than kapos,” immediately slammed the vote, calling the level of opposition to Friedman “unprecedented.”

“This is by far the most contested vote on a nominee for US ambassador to Israel ever,” J Street said, calling it “a clear signal that he is a completely inappropriate and disastrous choice for such an important position.”

Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi (Avi Hyman Communications)
Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi (Avi Hyman Communications)

The Yesha Council, the main umbrella group for West Bank settlers, however, welcomed the move, saying it looked forward to “working together with him to build a brighter future for everyone in the region.”

“The Israeli towns in Judea and Samaria are an integral piece in the puzzle for peace and can no longer be sidelined. Ambassador Friedman is a true friend of Israel that has a deep understanding of the reality on the ground and he will be a great asset to Israeli-American relations,” said Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi, one of the Yesha council leaders, slightly preempting Friedman’s title.

Friedman’s contrition during his Senate confirmation hearing did not satisfy most Democrats on the committee, including ranking member Cardin, who said in a statement Wednesday that Friedman’s history of comments on the two-state solution rendered him too flawed a mediator for peace.

Over the course of the campaign, Friedman was outspoken about his belief that West Bank settlement activity was not an obstacle to peace and that Israel would not face a “demographic threat” to its Jewish character if it were to fail to separate from the Palestinians.

He has also been an active supporter — both financially and vocally — of Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank.

He did express a willingness, however, to support a two-state outcome in his nomination hearing last month. But that did not satisfy Cardin, who said he remained dubious.

“Taken together, Mr. Friedman’s statements and affiliations make it clear that he does not believe the two-state solution is necessary for a just and lasting peace,” he said. “I am concerned that Mr. Friedman’s history on this issue undermines his ability to represent the United States as a credible facilitator of the peace process.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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