The controversial new US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, arrived in the country on Monday to take up his position amid a swirling debate over whether the embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Immediately after arriving, Friedman traveled to Jerusalem, where he went to the Western Wall and offered a prayer for US President Donald Trump
“Well, it was a long trip. We’re a bit tired, but we wanted to come straight to the holiest place in the entire Jewish world, the ‘Kotel Hamaaravi,’ the Western Wall, so we straight came here,” Friedman said in a filmed statement provided by the US Embassy, flanked by his wife Tammy and his daughter Talia.
Friedman, who arrived at the Jewish holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City, was greeted by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the Western Wall’s rabbi. Rabinovitch read a Psalm in Hebrew before Friedman approached and kissed the stones, his eyes closed.
“I had the opportunity to say some prayers,” Friedman said, adding that he prayed for the good health of his family — and for Donald Trump.
“I prayed for the president, and I wished him success, especially on his upcoming trip. I hope we all wish him success. We hope it’s going to be an amazing trip.”
— USEmbassyTelAviv (@usembassyta) May 15, 2017
Friedman is scheduled to hand his letter of credence to President Reuven Rivlin Tuesday morning in Jerusalem, officially taking up the post of US ambassador to Israel.
Foreign Ministry Chief of State Protocol Meron Reuben met Friedman earlier at Ben Gurion International Airport, tweeting a selfie of them and writing: “Welcome to your new post in Israel, bruchim habaim habayta,” using a transliteration of the Hebrew phrase for “Welcome home.”
Friedman, a former Trump lawyer, was considered a contentious pick for the job due to comments he made in the past, and for which he later apologized, comparing supporters of a left-wing Jewish group to “Jewish kapos” in the Holocaust, and for his active involvement in promoting settlements in the West Bank.
His confirmation in the Senate by a 52-46 margin was the most closely contested vote ever on an envoy to Israel.
— Meron Reuben (@AmbMeronReuben) May 15, 2017
Friedman has already reportedly waded into the complex local politics of his post, recently telling Israeli officials that US President Donald Trump was intent on reaching a peace deal, and urging them to cooperate with the president in his endeavor, Haaretz reported last week.
An Israeli government source told the newspaper that Friedman claimed Trump’s enthusiasm for relaunching the peace process presented a great opportunity for the Jewish state, and advised officials to avoid confrontation with the president over the matter.
However, Friedman has also advised Trump that the prospects of achieving peace at present are low, two people who spoke with the envoy told Haaretz.
Trump will visit Israel May 22-23 as part of his first foreign trip. He will also stop in Saudi Arabia and the Vatican, as well as Brussels and Sicily for NATO and G7 summits.
Ahead of Trump’s arrival top Israeli officials, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have called on the president to fulfill his campaign promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Since taking office, Trump has backed away from the pledge, instead saying he was still studying the issue.
In an interview with NBC broadcast Sunday US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump was assessing whether moving the embassy to Jerusalem would help or hurt prospects for clinching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, revealing Trump’s criteria for a decision that could reverberate throughout the volatile Middle East.
Jerusalem’s status is one of the most emotionally charged issues in the conflict, with both sides asserting their right to it. Israel captured East Jerusalem — claimed by Palestinians for the capital of a future independent state — from Jordan in 1967 and annexed it as part of its unified capital, a move not internationally recognized.
In a sign the White House is proceeding cautiously, AP reported this week that Friedman plans to work out of the current embassy in Tel Aviv rather than out of the US Consulate in Jerusalem, as some had urged him to do. Friedman, who owns an apartment in Jerusalem, is expected to live in the US ambassador’s official residence in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya, the AP report further said.
When he was picked for the ambassador’s post last December, Friedman had said he anticipated working from the US embassy in Jerusalem. In a statement issued by the Trump transition team, Friedman said he was “deeply honored and humbled” that Trump had selected him to represent the US in Israel, and that he aimed to “strengthen the bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region, and look forward to doing this from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
Confirmed in March in a mostly party-line vote, Friedman had drawn opposition from Democratic senators, mostly because of his attacks on liberal Jews in the past – which he apologized for during hearings – but also because of his philanthropic investment in the settlement movement, and his ties with settler leaders.
A range of liberal Jewish groups, including J Street and the Reform movement, opposed the nomination of Friedman, who has also expressed doubts about the two-state solution. The Trump confidant once called the Anti-Defamation League “morons” for its concerns about intimations of anti-Semitism in Trump’s rhetoric, and assailed supporters of J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, as “worse than kapos,” the Jewish Nazi collaborators.
Agencies contributed to this report.