David Friedman, Staunch Settlement Backer, Approved by Senate Panel as Envoy to Israel

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David Friedman testifies on his nomination to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, February 16, 2017.
David Friedman testifies on his nomination to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, February 16, 2017.Credit: WIN MCNAMEE/AFP

WASHINGTON - The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted on Thursday to approve the nomination of David Friedman, a vocal supporter of Israeli settlements and a longtime associate of U.S. President Donald Trump, as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel.

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Eleven Republican senators voted for Friedman, joined by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) who broke ranks with fellow Democrats, all remaining nine of whom voted against the nomination.   

The vote was not followed by any remarks or discussion, since Friedman already had a long confirmation hearing before the committee three weeks ago, and has since also been in touch with senators who have asked him to clarify some of his positions. 

The fact that Menendez was the sole Democrat to vote in favor of the nomination, thus providing it with a minimal level of bipartisan cover, didn't come as a surprise. Menendez, like Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), was one of only four Democrats to vote against the Iran deal in 2015. He comes from New Jersey, a state with a large Jewish population, and has important supporters and donors from the more right-wing and Orthodox segments of the state's Jewish community, which were generally supportive of Friedman's nomination.

Menendez is also considered close to AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, which didn't take a position on Friedman's nomination but was worried about the prospect of an ambassador to Israel being approved strictly according to party lines, a development that would have hurt the image of bipartisan support for Israel.

Haaretz has learned that while AIPAC itself did not get deeply involved in the fight over Friedman's nomination, some donors affiliated with the organization did make an independent effort to convince Democrats to support him.

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Friedman's nomination now heads  to the Senate floor. A date for a vote has not yet been scheduled, but it is almost certain that Friedman will be approved, since Republicans have a larger majority on the floor than in the committee, and a few more Democrats could join Menendez and vote in favor. One senator to watch in that regard will be Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who hasn't yet announced how he plans to vote.

Democrats Tim Kaine and Tom Udall voted against Friedman. Friedman "knows a lot about the region" but is undiplomatic and made wrong and false statements, Kaine said, while Udall cited a letter by five former ambassadors against the nomination.

An Orthodox bankruptcy lawyer who has for years worked for Trump and his real estate development business, Friedman was one of Trump's main emissaries to the Jewish community during his presidential campaign. Based on statements he has issued and columns he has penned, Friedman is positioned on the far right of the Israeli political map – more hardline in his views than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The 57-year-old Friedman, who hails from Long Island, has said the United States should not impose any solutions on Israel and that a binational state would not be a tragedy, maintaining that the number of Palestinians living in the West Bank is largely exaggerated and that they do not pose a threat to the Jewish majority.

Friedman has challenged the widespread view that Israeli settlement activity is illegal and opposes a ban on construction activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – particularly those places that would be part of a future agreement involving land swaps.

Friedman is president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, an organization that raises several million dollars a year for projects in that settlement, where he has several close friends. Plaques bearing Friedman’s name and those of other family members appear on buildings in the settlement, including a school built illegally on private Palestinian land. He also gave money to settle Jews in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem.

Friedman has, on various occasions during Trump's campaign, been asked to respond to charges of anti-Semitism among Trump supporters. He has largely dismissed these allegations, insisting that hatred of Jews is far more prevalent among the Left.

During his confirmation hearing, Friedman considerably mellowed his stances, going so far as to voice cautious support for a two-state solution and apologizing for former abrasive remarks. 

Following the vote, J Street, a vocal opponent of Friedman's nomination, said that the thin margin by which Friedman was approved was a "clear signal that he is a completely inappropriate and disastrous choice for such an important position." In a statement, J Street urged senators to vote against the nomination on the floor. 

"It's a sad day when a U.S. ambassadorial appointment gets committee approval almost only along party lines, never mind a would-be ambassador to Israel," said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic political consultant who has advised much of the party leadership over the years on issues related to Israel and the Jewish community. "This was a bad choice from the start. Normally elections have consequences and presidents get to appoint whomever they want - but within reason. And this appointment was not. I can only hope that if approved by all the Republicans in the Senate, our new ambassador will try to represent his entire country and not only its extreme right. Or that policy will be made in Foggy Bottom or the White House and not wherever he pretends to sit as ambassador."

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