In Bid to Waltz Through Senate Hearing, Trump's Israel Pick Downplays Ties to Settlement

David Friedman heads an organization that raised millions of dollars for the settlement of Beit El, but says financial support is philanthropic.

David Friedman speaks during a Senate confirmation hearing in Washington, February 16, 2017.
Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Might David Friedman’s deep emotional attachment to Israel and the settlement movement – not to mention his business interests in the country – not put him at a conflict of interest when serving as America's envoy to Israel?

Several of the questions raised during the confirmation hearings on his appointment as ambassador focused on that possibility. Friedman was asked several times whether he would be prepared to subordinate his own views to those of his bosses in Washington and whether he would be prepared to subordinate the interests of Israel to those of the United States. On each occasion, he responded affirmatively.

Of particular concern was whether Friedman’s longstanding support for the settler movement might render him less amenable to a two-state solution, which by definition would require Israel to evacuate settlements.

For the past six years, Friedman has served as president of an organization that raises money for the West Bank settlement of Beit El, which is situated far from the 1967 border and is not expected to be incorporated into Israel as part of any future peace agreement.

Friedman was asked if he would be willing to accept a deal that included the evacuation of Beit El. He said that he would “in the context of a consensual agreement.”

At the same time, he attempted to downplay the extent of his involvement in this particular settlement. American Friends of Beit El raises several millions of dollars for institutions and projects in the settlement. In response to a question, Friedman insisted his support of the settlement had little to do with ideology.

“We support a Talmudic academy and a boys high school and a girls high school, and it primarily derives from my commitment to Jewish education,” he said. “The quality of those schools is excellent, and everything we’ve given money to has been in the nature of gymnasiums, dormitories, dining rooms, classrooms, and things like that. My philanthropic activity there has not been connected to their political activity, which I had no part in.”

Not exactly. One of the key institutions supported by Friedman’s fundraising organization is Arutz Sheva, a news website that serves as the mouthpiece of the settler population and prides itself, on “articulating the legitimate rights of the indigenous Jewish population to self-determination throughout its ancient homeland.” 

At the Senate hearing, Friedman was grilled about vicious attacks he made in columns for Arutz Sheva against Jewish liberals and Senate Democrats.
Two of Friedman’s close friends at Beit El – former lawmaker Yaakov (“Katzele”) Katz and Baruch Gordon – are affiliated with groups on the Israeli far right.

Friedman still serves as president of the fundraising organization but has pledged to resign from that position, as well as others he fills, once his nomination is approved.

According to the financial disclosure report Friedman filed to the U.S. State Department ahead of the hearings, he also owns shares in an Israeli enterprise – the Montefiore Winery, which has offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In response to a question at the hearing, Friedman said that he had agreed to sell all his business interests in Israel. It is not clear whether that also includes a penthouse apartment he owns in Jerusalem and his holdings in two Israeli-founded and operated companies based in the United States.