Analysis

David Friedman Will Say (Almost) Anything to Become U.S. Ambassador to Israel

At the Senate confirmation hearing, an unrecognizable Friedman goes back on contentious past remarks on settlements and peacemaking, but stops short of full-throated apology for insulting Jewish leaders.

David Friedman testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Israel, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 16, 2017.
YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS

It was a kinder, gentler, and utterly transformed David Friedman who faced the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday.

Gone was the man who penned numerous scathing articles and made multiple fire-breathing speeches comparing left-wing Jews to the kapos who assisted the Nazis during the Holocaust, painted President Barack Obama, the Clintons, the U.S. State Department and other leading Democrats as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, passionately supported the settlement project and repeatedly dismissed the idea of a Palestinian state as a dangerous “scam.”

Instead, an unrecognizably chastened ambassador-designate Friedman seemed willing to do or say whatever it took to be approved for his dream job of U.S. envoy to Israel. Humble and contrite when discussing his past remarks and calling two states the “ideal” resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Friedman toed the line with newly evolving Trump administration policy agreeing that expanding settlements beyond their current borders “may not be helpful."

In the past, he explained, "I expressed skepticism about the two-state solution due to the Palestinians' refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” But now, he claimed, "If Israelis and Palestinians are able to achieve a two-state solution, I would be delighted” since “the two-state solution, if it can be achieved, will bring great benefits for Israelis and Palestinians."

Declaring that he did not support annexation of the West Bank into Israel, he specifically rejected the idea of an apartheid-style one-state solution that distinguished between Israelis and Palestinians. “I don’t think anyone would ever support a state in which different classes of citizens would have separate rights. I don’t know Israelis even on the far right who would support that. It’s an untenable and an immoral construct.”

Friedman’s willingness to renounce such a wide range of previously deeply held positions was so pronounced that Senator Robert Menendez asked him outright if he was undergoing a “nomination conversion” or if he truly believed what he was saying. Friedman insisted his words were “heartfelt.”

Challenged by Senator Bob Corker on what appeared to be a willingness on Friedman’s part to "recant every strongly held belief" he held, Friedman said it was because “the opportunity to serve my country as Israel's ambassador would be the fulfillment of a life's work ...There's nothing more important to me than strengthening the bonds between the United States and Israel."

Donald Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer and personal counsel for more than 15 years, Friedman, an Orthodox rabbi’s son from Long Island, owns a home in Jerusalem and has given generously to the West Bank settlement of Beit El and headed its “American Friends” organization. Friedman was one of Trump’s top advisers on Israel and the Middle East during the campaign and a key figure in rallying the support of the right-wing and Orthodox Jewish community behind Trump, while most of the mainstream and left-wing Jewish groups supported Hillary Clinton, for whom the Jewish community voted in overwhelming numbers.  

In order to be confirmed, Friedman needs the support of at least 11 of the committee's 21 members, which is the likely reason behind his newly conciliatory persona.

His willingness to please, however, had its limits. Though he backtracked on his controversial insults to Jewish leaders and political officials - after having refused to do so in the past - Friedman fell short of a full-throated apology - he did not say the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” at the hearing.  He did say repeatedly that he “regretted” and “rejected” past remarks for which he had “no excuse” and recounted that he had “reached out” to the individuals and organizations whom he had “hurt” with the words that Senator Cory Booker told him were inexcusably “cruel”  and “demeaning.”

In regard to the left-wing organization J Street, Friedman stated that while he still disagreed with its positions as he had in the past "I regret that I didn't not express those views respectfully."

Explaining that his strongest language was sparked by his “passionate” opposition to the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and during the “heat” of the presidential campaign, Friedman admitted that it did not excuse them. “These were hurtful words and I deeply regret them. They’re not reflective of my nature and character.”

Friedman Claimed 'Kapos' Rhetoric Was Due to Election Fever. We Checked - He Kept at It

He said that when he became a diplomat, things would be different. "Partisan rhetoric is not appropriate in achieving diplomatic progress, especially in a sensitive and strife-torn region like the Middle East," he said.

The Friedman hearing was interrupted multiple times - twice by pro-Palestinian demonstrators with Palestinian flags, and once by the Jewish dissident group IfNotNow, who blew a shofar and sang Hebrew song Olam Chesed Yibaneh, We Will Build This World With Love. as they were escorted out of the hearing room. “

Friedman was warmly introduced at the beginning of the hearing by former Senator Joe Lieberman, who worked with him as a law partner and is also a personal friend who, Lieberman said, hosted him for three years in his Long Island home when he came to visit his daughter, who lived nearby, and didn’t have room. He said that he thought Friedman would be an “extraordinary” ambassador and that the media reports about Friedman before the hearing that focused on his combative statements did not reflect the "thoughtful, capable, personable David Friedman I know."