WASHINGTON — David Friedman, the firebrand attorney President Donald Trump picked to be his ambassador to Israel, faces a rocky confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after Trump signaled a dramatic shift in strategy for pursuing peace in the Middle East.
Friedman’s hearing, scheduled for Thursday, already promised to be contentious. The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Friedman is a fervent supporter of Israeli settlements, an opponent of Palestinian statehood and staunch defender of Israel’s government.
Five former US ambassadors to Israel have declared Friedman unqualified for job, citing his “extreme, radical positions” that include accusing former president Barack Obama and the entire State Department of anti-Semitism.
The ambassadors, who served Republican and Democratic presidents, also noted in a letter sent Wednesday to committee members that Friedman characterized supporters of J Street, a liberal Jewish group, as “kapos,” the Jews who cooperated with Nazis during the Holocaust.
“We believe the committee should satisfy itself that Mr. Friedman has the balance and the temperament required to represent the United States as ambassador to Israel,” they wrote. The letter opposing Friedman’s nomination was signed by Thomas Pickering, William Harrop, Edward Walker, Daniel Kurtzer and James Cunningham.
Friedman is set to apologize at his hearing for the derogatory comments he made about liberal Jews year during the presidential campaign. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Friedman’s representatives told Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin, of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that he will express his regret for calling supporters of J Street “worse than kapos.” Friedman made that argument in an op-ed last year for the far-right Israeli news network Israel National News.
Friedman, a 57-year-old Long Island native, has also drawn the ire of many on the American Jewish left for his opposition to a two-state solution and vocal and financial support for West Bank settlements. 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.
He has also pushed for the US to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a key Trump campaign promise from which the president has appeared to distance himself since taking office last month.
Ahead of his confirmation hearing, a number of liberal organizations, including Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund, urged American Jews to contact their senators to protest the nomination. The National Jewish Democratic Council said it was opposed to his nomination, calling him “uniquely unqualified.”
And on Monday, more than 600 rabbis and cantors signed an open letter against Friedman’s appointment. The letter calls on either the president to withdraw the nomination or the Senate to reject Friedman’s bid if Trump is unwilling to take such an action.
“The Rabbis of the Talmud are adamant that we are to speak to and about other people — particularly those with whom we disagree — with love and respect. We are taught that shaming a person is tantamount to shedding their blood,” they said. “Yet Mr. Friedman seems to have no qualms about insulting people with whom he disagrees.”
The letter was orchestrated by a number of liberal American Jewish groups who have responded with horror to Friedman’s nomination since it was announced and have vowed to fight his bid, including J Street, T’ruah and Ameinu. Signatures were collected over a period of 2-3 weeks.
The drama surrounding Friedman’s confirmation is heightened by Trump’s refusal to explicitly endorse the two-state solution that has been American policy since 2002. Trump, with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his side at the White House on Wednesday, withheld clear support for an independent Palestine and declared that he could support a one-state solution that produces peace.
The president’s stance, which separated him from recent American presidents, also immediately distanced the United States from the prevailing position held by much of the world.
J Street, which worked closely with the Obama administration and advocates a two-state solution, called Trump’s remarks “both meaningless and dangerous.”
“How can there be a negotiation, let alone an agreement, when there is no longer a consensus on what the end goal should be?” said Jeremy Ben Ami, J Street’s president. The group has opposed Friedman’s nomination because of what it said is “his consistent record of extreme and offensive attacks on senior US officials, on American diplomats and on liberal American Jews.”
But Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee, downplayed Trump’s statement. “He said we should leave it to those who are negotiating, the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Flake said. “It didn’t strike me as a big break from the past.”
Flake, who met Wednesday with Friedman, said he’s inclined to support his nomination, noting that a president deserves broad deference on whom he selects to serve in key government posts.
All serious Middle East peace negotiations in recent decades have assumed the emergence of an independent Palestine. The alternatives appear to offer dimmer prospects for peace, given Palestinian demands for statehood. Dozens of countries, including the US, reaffirmed their support for a two-state accord at an international conference in Paris last month, just before Trump’s inauguration.