WASHINGTON – Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill are angry at David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, for claiming that Republicans support Israel more than Democrats.
A growing number of senators and members of Congress attacked Friedman over the weekend for his comments, accusing him of turning support for Israel into a partisan wedge issue. Some even hinted that he should be removed from his diplomatic post.
Friedman made the undiplomatic statement in an interview with The Times of Israel last week. "The argument that I hear from some Democrats that Republicans are seizing the pro-Israel mantle is true, to a certain extent. There’s no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats,” he said.
“I’m very disappointed by Ambassador Friedman’s statement that ‘Republicans support Israel more than Democrats.’ The United States’ support for Israel has always been and remains bipartisan," said Sen. Chris Coons (Delaware), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"As a senator, I have been proud to work with Democrats and Republicans, with the Obama administration and the Trump administration, to support Israel. The U.S. relationship with Israel transcends partisan politics and American and Israeli leaders have worked for decades to keep it that way," Coons added.
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The senator noted that he is currently working on legislation regarding American security assistance to Israel together with a Republican colleague, Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida), and that the legislation "currently has 50 co-sponsors, 23 Democrats and 27 Republicans." He concluded that "ambassador Friedman should avoid these types of partisan statements and work with Republicans and Democrats to advance our important alliance with Israel."
Sen. Ben Cardin (Maryland), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, also criticized Friedman, stating that his comments were “wrong, insensitive, and demonstrate his ill-preparedness to be a suitable diplomat to one of our most important allies and friends in the world." He added that Friedman's statements are also harmful to the Trump administration's attempts to reach a peace deal in the Middle East.
Sen. Chris Murphy (Cincinnati) wrote in response to Friedman's quote: "When I got to Congress, support for Israel was one of the few issues that weren't partisan. Key elements of the GOP waged a deliberate campaign to change that, and now, sadly, they have the help of the U.S. Ambassador."
Rep. Nita Lowey (New York), a veteran Jewish lawmaker, released a statement on Friday warning Friedman against damaging the U.S.-Israel relationship for political purposes.
"The U.S. Ambassador to Israel should know how dangerous it is to make support for Israel a partisan issue. The unbreakable U.S.-Israel relationship is fundamentally grounded in bipartisanship, with both parties sharing a long-standing commitment to Israel’s security and legitimacy," she said. "Instead of attempting to create further political divides in Washington, the Ambassador should focus his energy on representing the diplomatic priorities of the U.S.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Illinois) released a combative statement, saying Friedman has disgraced American foreign policy. "David Friedman’s latest comments underscore the fact that he is unfit to serve in this critical position. By attempting to turn overwhelming bipartisan support for the State of Israel into a partisan political issue, and through statements that undermine long-standing U.S. policies in the region, he is a disgrace to U.S. diplomacy," she said.
Schakowsky is considered an ally of the left-wing Jewish group J Street, and recently led a group of 76 members of Congress in writing a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank.
J Street, for its part, called on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to investigate Friedman's conduct as ambassador, following his comments.
It should be noted that unlike all previous ambassadors to Israel, who received wide support from members of both parties in their confirmation vote, Friedman received the support of only two Democratic senators out of 48. Even Democrats who voted against the nuclear deal with Iran and supported the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, such as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Cardin, voted against his confirmation.
Rep. Elliot Engel (New York), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is considered a strong supporter of Israel. He said that if Friedman doesn't change his conduct, he should leave his diplomatic post.
"It’s outrageous that any American diplomat would wade into partisan politics as Ambassador Friedman has done,” Engel said in a statement, adding that "diplomacy and partisan politics are incompatible. If Mr. Friedman doesn’t understand that, he should come home.”
A number of public opinion polls conducted over the past two years have shown that while Israel still enjoys high levels of support within the general American public, there are increasing gaps in support for the country between Democratic and Republican voters.
A Pew Center poll from January showed that 79 percent of Republican respondents said they sympathize with Israel more than with the Palestinians, compared to 27 percent of Democrats. A Gallup poll from April showed a smaller but still significant gap: 83 percent of Republican respondents said they have a favorable opinion of Israel, compared to 63 percent of Democrats.
The editors of both polls noted that Israel was becoming a more partisan issue than in the past.