WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was heckled during a stormy confirmation hearing Thursday, in which he walked back some of his previous statements and expressed support for a two-state solution.
Liberal Jewish groups and past US ambassadors have spoken forcefully against the nomination of Friedman, who has been a vocal supporter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and caused an uproar by saying supporters of the dovish Mideast policy group J Street were “far worse than kapos,” referring to Jews who aided Nazis during the Holocaust.
“You do not represent us and you will never represent us,” chanted Jewish activists who disrupted the proceeding. They blew a shofar, a ritual horn, and called him a “war criminal,” before being escorted out by police.
Earlier, pro-Palestinian protesters held up Palestinian flags and chanted: “We were there, we are there, and we will always be in Palestine.”
But Friedman’s major challenge came from the questions he had to answer at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding his past views.
Speaking just a day after Trump broke with decades of American foreign policy by not explicitly endorsing a two-state solution during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Friedman said a two state solution still represented the “most ideal” resolution to the conflict.
“It still remains the best possibility of peace in the region,” he said.
“I would be delighted to see peace come to this region where people have suffered on both sides for so long,” Friedman elaborated. “I have expressed my skepticism about the two-state solution solely on the basis of what I have perceived as unwillingness to renounce terror and accept Israel as a Jewish state.”
He said that the groundwork for such an accord was reached at the 1993 Oslo talks between Israel’s then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But he argued that, since then, Palestinian violence against Israel has only increased. “One of the primary commitments was chairman Arafat’s commitment to begin to educate his people to stop hatred,” he said. “We haven’t made progress since then, and terrorism has increased four-fold since before Oslo.”
In a November 2016 interview with The Times of Israel, Friedman had stated that, based on his 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. A two-state solution is a way, but it’s not the only way.”
Asked Thursday by Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine about the prospects of a one-state outcome to the conflict, and whether he could confirm the US would not abide a situation in which the Palestinians are “deprived of full and equal legal rights,” Friedman responded in the affirmative, saying: “I think so.”
“I don’t think anyone would like a state where different classes of citizens have different rights,” he said, noting that such a state would be “an untenable and immoral construct.”
Right-wing Israeli leaders have been calling for Israel to annex large parts of the West Bank without necessarily granting equal rights to Palestinians who live there. Friedman said he was opposed to any annexation.
Many of the senators invoked his comments about J Street and other combative statements he made during the campaign.
In his opening remarks, Friedman said those attacks were an example of “partisan rhetoric” during a heated presidential election campaign. Friedman is Trump’s longtime lawyer and was a key surrogate to the Jewish community during the campaign.
In addition to calling J Street supporters “worse than kapos,” he referred to the Anti-Defamation League as “morons,” and likened Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who appeased Adolf Hitler.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the ranking member of the committee, which must approve Friedman to advance his nomination to the full Senate, said the would-be-ambassador’s terminology seemed to go beyond partisan rhetoric.
Cardin said he and Friedman had in common that “our parents were proud Zionists who worked and did everything they could in support for the State of Israel.” But noting his father was the president of a synagogue – Friedman’s was a rabbi – Cardin added, “My father taught me to respect different views.”
The Maryland lawmaker also noted that some of Friedman’s statements – particularly his attack on Schumer, made during the heat of the battle over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – came before the campaign and in many cases were written comments.
“I’m having difficulty understanding your use of those descriptions and whether you really can be a diplomat,” Cardin said.
Friedman appeared chastened.
“I provided some context for my remarks, but that was not in the nature of an excuse,” he said. “These were hurtful words and I deeply regret them. They’re not reflective of my nature, or my character.”
J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami said the apology did not count for much. “You can’t take everything one has held over the course of an entire lifetime and expunge that in three hours,” he told The Times of Israel.
Pressed later on why he was seemingly recanting every “strongly held belief” of his, as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker (R) put it, Friedman explained that he mostly regretted the manner in which he expressed his views.
Friedman also took pains to stress that, as ambassador, he would be conveying Trump administration’s policies and not his own views.
“My personal views are completely subordinate to that of the president and the secretary of state,” he said. “Those are my private opinions. They’ll be left in New York, if I’m privileged enough to travel to the state of Israel for this mission.”
On accepting Trump’s nomination Friedman had said he hoped to work from “the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
The current US embassy is in Tel Aviv, previous presidents having decided not to court Palestinian anger and disrupt peace efforts by endorsing Israel’s claim on the holy city as its undivided capital. Trump has said he is considering whether to move it, but has backed away from an explicit campaign commitment to do so. Friedman said Thursday that the decision was Trump’s to make, and that he would respect it.
Protesters interrupted the hearings at least three times, including by a contingent from the Jewish protest group If Not Now who sang as they were ejected “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” “Build a world of kindness.”
The Senate foreign relations panel will soon schedule a vote on whether to allow the nomination to head to the Senate floor. If Friedman clears the committee, he will need a simple majority vote in the full chamber to be confirmed.
Given the current makeup of the Senate — in which Republicans have a 52-48 majority — there would need to be at least three Republican defections to block the nomination with all Democrats opposing the bid.
After Thursday’s hearing ended, one of Friedman’s most vocal critics, noting that reality, didn’t find reason to suspect the opposition efforts would prevail.
“Well, my math is better than their foreign policy,” J Street’s Ben-Ami said of GOP members of the committee. “I haven’t heard a Republican yet [oppose Friedman], although I heard some questions in there from senators Flake and Corker, but I didn’t hear anything that would indicate yet that you would have a Republican vote against. So right now it looks like the nomination will go through.”
JTA and AFP contributed to this report.