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US ambassador ‘more mortified than any Palestinian’ over Temple photo

Friedman says picture of him standing alongside an image of Jerusalem that replaced Dome of the Rock with Jewish Temple was ‘really unfortunate’

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman is pictured next to a man holding a poster of the Jewish Temple replacing the Muslim Dome on the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, at an event for the Achiya educational nonprofit in Bnei Brak, May 22, 2018. (Courtesy: Kikar HaShabbat)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman is pictured next to a man holding a poster of the Jewish Temple replacing the Muslim Dome on the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, at an event for the Achiya educational nonprofit in Bnei Brak, May 22, 2018. (Courtesy: Kikar HaShabbat)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said Wednesday he was “more mortified… than any Palestinian” by pictures of him standing alongside a doctored image of Jerusalem that showed the Dome of the Rock replaced by a Jewish Temple.

“I was more mortified by anyone else, more than any Palestinian, when I saw a picture of myself standing next to that poster,” he told Hadashot TV news.

Friedman claimed he was duped into being pictured with the poster during a visit Tuesday to the offices of an ultra-Orthodox group.

“Someone just shoved it in my face and took a picture. Of course that’s unacceptable to me, and the United States respects the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif,” he said, using a Muslim name for the Temple Mount. “That’s really an unfortunate thing, and I felt terrible that people might have reacted to that the way they did.”

Friedman was visiting the Bnei Brak headquarters of the Achiya organization — an ultra-Orthodox non-profit supported by the US embassy — when a member of the group handed him a large poster showing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but with a Jewish Temple standing in place of the Muslim Dome of the Rock shrine at the holy site.

An aerial view of the Dome of the Rock, left, in the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s old city, and the Western Wall, center, the holiest site for Jews, October 02, 2007. (AFP/Jack Guez)

The picture stoked anger among the Palestinians, who are already furious over last week’s transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, months after Washington recognized the city as the capital of Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas’s adviser for religious affairs, Mahmoud Habbash, called Friedman a “terrorist settler” for posing with the image, in comments published by official PA news agency Wafa.

PA government spokesman Yousef al-Mahmoud called the incident an example of “reckless and racist arrogance,” according to Wafa, and said Trump appointed Friedman to serve as his ambassador for “forgeries and falsifying facts.”

Friedman on Wednesday pushed back at the harsh criticism, saying that although he wasn’t personally offended by it, the US “doesn’t deserve this treatment” from the Palestinians.

“The US has given over $5 billion to the Palestinians since the 1990s. There is no country that comes close in financial aid and to trying to help the Palestinians build better lives,” he said.

In response to the incident, the US embassy said the doctored image was “thrust in front of” an unknowing Friedman for a photo-op.

“Ambassador Friedman was not aware of the image thrust in front of him when the photo was taken,” the US embassy in Jerusalem said in a statement. “He was deeply disappointed that anyone would take advantage of his visit to Bnei Brak to create controversy.

The embassy also demanded an apology from the organization “for allowing one of its employees to present this controversial image to the ambassador during his visit.”

The Achiya organization subsequently apologized “from the bottom of our heart” for the incident, saying in a statement that the “cheap political act” of an employee “overshadowed” Friedman’s attempt to highlight its good work.

The Temple Mount houses the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and is considered Islam’s third holiest site. It is the holiest site in Judaism, revered by Jews as the location of two biblical temples.

Under the present arrangement instituted by Israel after it captured Jerusalem’s Old City in the 1967 war, the site remains under Jordan’s religious custodianship. Jews are allowed to visit the compound but are barred from religious worship or prayer. The sensitive site has been at the heart of several upticks in Palestinian violence in recent years, over claims Israel was seeking to change the arrangements there. Israel denies any such plans.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman arrives at the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

In the past, Friedman made remarks that were rebuffed by Washington as not reflecting official policy.

Last September, he told Israel’s Walla news site he thought “the settlements are part of Israel.” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert later told reporters that his comments marked no shift in the US position.

The Associated Press reported last month that Friedman has been seeking to adopt the Israeli name for the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, in his official remarks and statements, but has so far been prevented from doing so by the Trump administration. Last December, it was reported that Friedman had asked the State Department to stop calling the West Bank “occupied.”

Before his confirmation to the diplomatic role, Friedman was a staunch supporter of settlements and a columnist for right-wing Israeli publications.

Over the weekend, Friedman also said evangelical Christians “support Israel with much greater fervor and devotion than many in the Jewish community.”

On Sunday, the US ambassador accused the “liberal media” of “glorifying” Hamas terrorists in its coverage of last week’s US embassy move and concurrent Gaza riots in order to denigrate US President Donald Trump, and appeared to accuse the press of having “blood on its hands” for allowing Hamas to garner front page real estate.

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