The largest U.S. Jewish Orthodox group on Tuesday urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee not to view President Donald Trump's designated Israel ambassador as an extremist simply because he opposes the two-state solution.
The Orthodox Union submitted a letter to committee members in defense of designated envoy David Friedman's views. The letter did not include an endorsement of Friedman, since the Orthodox Union doesn't engage in endorsing or opposing presidents' candidates.
However, it came to defend Friedman's opposition to the two-state solution, which is to the right of the stated position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This, following what group leaders call "a campaign to portray Mr. Friedman as extreme and even beyond the pale of mainstream thought."
The letter doesn’t say who's behind that campaign, but it most probably refers to J Street, the pro-Israel, anti-occupation Jewish group whose members have been described by Friedman as "worse than Kapos" – Jews that assisted the Nazis during the Holocaust.
J Street is planning to fight Friedman's confirmation, and has already begun to mobilize its supporters to contact their senators and encourage them to vote against him. Other Jewish organizations such as the Union for Reform Judaism have also spoken out against Friedman's nomination, based on some of his past remarks, such as calling the State Department – his future employer – anti-Semitic.
In its letter, the Orthodox Union tried to push back against one of the main arguments raised by other Jewish groups against Friedman's nomination, which is his opposition to the two-state solution. This position, says the letter, isn't necessarily supported by the Orthodox Union, but it should not be seen as extremist and outside of mainstream discussion about Israel.
"There is no denying that many American Jews – certainly in the Orthodox Union's constituency – and other pro-Israel Americans share Mr. Friedman's deep skepticism toward this decades-old approach which has been tried and tested and failed repeatedly to deliver security and peace to the people of Israel, the Palestinians and the region," according to the letter.
"Indeed, we are compelled to note that in its eight-year tenure, the Obama administration tried aggressively to pursue a 'two-state solution' to no avail. It is the view of millions of pro-Israel Americans – including most of the Orthodox Union's constituents – that this result is primarily due to the Palestinians' persistent rejectionism."
"No doubt," the Orthodox Union added, "reasonable and well-meaning people can debate these points and rightly claim they are representing many constituents who subscribe to one side of the debate. But it is wrong to assert, in this context, that the other side's views are extreme and beyond the pale. We urge you to take our perspective into account as you consider Mr. Friedman's nomination."
The Orthodox Union's letter didn't touch on other aspects of Friedman's nomination that have been raised by his opponents, such as his controversial comments and his lack of any diplomatic experience.
A source involved in the fight over Friedman's nomination told Haaretz that the candidate's opposition to a two-state solution would likely have little to no influence on his chances to gain approval by the committee.
"This is an issue that at the end of the day will be decided by the White House, not the ambassador to Israel." The issues that could endanger Friedman's nomination, the source added, were "questions of civility and diplomatic conduct. This is a man who called President [Barack] Obama an anti-Semite."
To the leadership of the Orthodox Union, however, the important point was not to allow the discussion over Friedman to paint a position held by many of the movement's members and supporters as outside the mainstream.
Nathan Diament, the organization's executive director, told Haaretz last week that he was optimistic with regards to the upcoming meeting between Netanyahu and Trump, set to take place on Wednesday – just a day before Friedman's confirmation hearing.
"Trump has already changed the tone with regards to Israel, by echoing the Bush-Sharon understandings on settlement building, and perhaps even going a little bit further," Diament said. He was referring to a letter sent by former President Bush to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 that Israeli officials intercepted as American recognition that building in West Bank settlement blocs was okay given that they were going to be part of Israel in any final status agreement.
"It seems like this administration will not be as obsessed with where Jews live and as harshly critical of settlement activity as the previous one," Diament said.
He added that those on the Israeli and Jewish-American right who feel disappointed because Trump hasn't fully adopted their positions on settlements and the peace process had perhaps set their expectations from the new president too high.
"There are realistic expectation and unrealistic expectations. If someone thought that Trump will say – 'please build a new settlement in the northern Shomron,' they will probably be disappointed," he said, referring to the northern West Bank. "But people who had more realistic expectations can already see some of them taking shape, with the administration stating that existing settlements are not an impediment to peace, and making clear that it will not allow anti-Israel resolutions to happen at the UN."
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