Trump's Senate Battle for Israel Ambassador Could Come Down to One Wildcard Vote

Ties to and donations from pro-Israel groups may affect senators' decisions. This is how David Friedman's confirmation hearing will play out.

Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky,during a Senate Small Business Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., Jan. 24, 2017.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg

On Thursday morning, Donald Trump’s nominee for the post of U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, will begin his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Friedman will need to win the support of at least 11 of its 21 members in order to clinch the confirmation.

The easiest way to achieve that goal is by persuading all 11 Republicans on the committee to vote in favor of his nomination – something which, as of Sunday night, looked doable for Friedman.

The only Republican senator who has thus far threatened to vote against some of Trump’s potential nominees – such as former Bush administration officials John Bolton and Elliott Abrams – has been Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who holds libertarian and anti-interventionist views. So far, Paul has not released any statement regarding Friedman.

The 10 other Republicans on the committee are all considered likely to vote in favor of Friedman’s nomination. They include favorites of “pro-Israel” donors such as Senator Marco Rubio (Fl.) Senator Rob Portman (Ohio) and Senator Ron Johnson (Wis.), in addition to committee chairman Senator Bob Corker (Tenn.). Friedman’s extremist views on issues related to Israel and the settlements, which are to the right of the current Israeli leadership, probably won’t stop these senators from voting in his favor. The same is true of Senators Cory Gardner (Col.) and Jeff Flake (Az.), who, like Portman and Johnson, have received campaign contributions in the past from the Republican Jewish Coalition – an organization affiliated with and supported by Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, a staunch opponent of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How Senate Foreign Relations Committee members are likely to vote on David Friedman's nomination.
Haaretz

In general, of the 11 Republican senators on the foreign relations panel, Paul is the only one who has not received substantial donations over the last six years from political organizations or private donors considered to be pro-Israel.

Many of these contributions, however, could also have come from political action committees (PACs) or individual donors who are connected to AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby that, as a matter of policy, doesn’t comment publicly on presidential nominees, and so far has also remained silent on Friedman.

AIPAC’s official position is to support the two-state solution, but Friedman vehemently opposes it. Since Trump’s election victory, AIPAC has lobbied Republican senators and members of the House to support bipartisan resolutions in support of Israel, which favor the two-state solution. Friedman’s opposition to it thus puts him at odds with the most powerful pro-Israel organization in the United States, and thus it is difficult to predict with any certainty that Republican senators considered to be close to AIPAC will support him.

Still, if Friedman manages to hold on to all the Republicans in the committee voting on his confirmation, he will succeed. However, if he eventually is tipped to be ambassador to Israel thanks only to the support of the Republicans, his confirmation will be seen by many supporters of Israel in Washington as a worrying sign that the issue of the Jewish state is becoming a divisive and partisan one in U.S. discourse. Previous envoys to Israel, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, have usually won the support of senators on both sides of the aisle, giving substance to the notion that support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship transcends party lines on Capitol Hill.

Friedman’s extreme right-wing views and inflammatory statements, however, could be putting that tradition in danger. Democratic Senators are due to ask him specifically about an article in which he claimed that the U.S. State Department, his future employer, is anti-Semitic, and about his claim that supporters of J Street – a pro-Israel and anti-occupation Jewish organization – are worse than Jews who collaborated with Nazis in death camps during the Holocaust.

These statements alone could make a number of the Foreign Relations Committee’s 10 Democrats vote against his nomination.

As far as contributions to the Democrats on the committee are concerned, Senator Tim Kaine (Va.), the former Democratic vice presidential nominee, received more than $100,000 for his 2012 Senate campaign from a PAC affiliated with J Street. Kaine will also be a keynote speaker at J Street’s annual conference later this year. Three other Democrats – Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (Or.) – are, according to the J Street PAC website, "off-cycle endorsees" (i.e., senators whose views on Israel are supported by that organization). It will thus be surprising if any of them votes in favor of Friedman's nomination, considering his opposition to a two-state solution and his past remarks.

The more interesting votes to watch on the Democratic side will be those of senators considered to be close to AIPAC. It’s not clear what the lobby group will be doing behind the scenes, if anything, with regards to the nomination, if it becomes clear that it has been secured by the Republican members of the committee. Will it try to persuade the Democratic senators to support a candidate who has called former President Barack Obama an anti-Semite, in order to preserve an image of bipartisan support for Israel? Will it "forgive" Democrats who choose to keep a distance from Trump’s controversial candidate?

The Democrats on the senate panel who are seen as close to AIPAC are ranking member Ben Cardin (Md.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Chris Coons (Del.) – all of whom have yet to comment publicly on Friedman. Cardin and Menendez were both among the lone four Democratic senators who in 2015 voted against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran; Booker and Coons, meanwhile, disappointed many of their supporters (and donors) from pro-Israel circles by choosing to vote in favor of the accord.

One Democratic staffer told Haaretz that Cardin has already met with Friedman and says the elder senator’s vote could be consequential. The staffer also noted that Cardin harshly criticized the White House’s statement last month on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which omitted any reference to the Jewish people, and the Maryland senator will be pressed on the matter if he chooses to appoint Friedman despite his characterization of J Street as being “worse than kapos.”

Friedman is from the state of New York and has strong ties to Jewish communites and institutions in neighboring New Jersey, which will make it particularly interesting to see how Sens. Booker and Menendez vote, since they both represent the Garden State.

According to the website Map Light, which tracks political donations to the campaigns of members of Congress, these two senators received sizeable donations from groups and individuals that are supportive of Israel (the site lists $434,000 in contributions to Booker’s political campaigns, and just over $350,000 to Menendez’s) in recent years. At least some of those donors will probably be disappointed if either of their senators votes against Friedman’s nomination.