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Hard-Right Choice for U.S. Ambassador to Israel Draws Polarizing Reactions

The hard-right views of David M. Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who is President-elect Donald J. Trump’s choice as the next ambassador to Israel, have drawn polarized responses in Israel and the United States.

Mr. Friedman, who has represented Mr. Trump in matters involving Atlantic City casinos, has no diplomatic experience. He has long espoused hard-right, pro-Israel views that are often at odds with decades of United States policy toward the region.

He doubts the need for a two-state solution; endorses continued settlements in Palestinian territory and even annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank; has accused the Obama administration of anti-Semitism; and once likened left-leaning Jewish critics to Nazi collaborators.

In a column last year, he called supporters of J Street — a liberal American Jewish organization that supports a negotiated two-state solution — “far worse than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.” He wrote: “The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas – it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”

J Street announced its firm opposition on Friday morning to Mr. Friedman.

Mr. Friedman, the organization noted on Twitter, had “called Obama an anti-Semite”; “backs unlimited settlement expansion”; and “says liberal Zionists ‘worse than kapos.’ ” Benjamin Silverstein, the organization’s digital director, vowed to work to block Mr. Friedman’s appointment, which requires confirmation by the Senate.

The left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in an editorial, called Mr. Friedman “an extreme right-winger,” adding: “He makes Benjamin Netanyahu seem like a left-wing defeatist.”

Mr. Friedman, in a statement on Thursday, said he looked forward to doing the job “from the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

For decades, the United States embassy in Israel has been in Tel Aviv. That is largely because the American position has been that the status of Jerusalem must be determined as part of a broader peace deal and that having an embassy there could seem like taking sides in the fraught argument over who has the right to control the ancient city. Mr. Trump has promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but so did several of his predecessors.

Photo

David M. Friedman

Credit
Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP, via Associated Press

A senior Palestinian cleric, Sheikh Ikrama Sabri, warned against Mr. Friedman’s support for moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem.

“If this happens,” Mr. Sabri, a former mufti of Jerusalem, said during a Friday sermon at Al Aqsa Mosque in the city, “the U.S. is declaring a new war on the Palestinians and all Muslim Arabs.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely of Israel called the appointment “very welcome news for Israel,” adding: “His positions reflect the desire to strengthen the standing of Israel’s capital Jerusalem at this time and to underscore that the settlements have never been the true problem in the area.”

Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, congratulated Mr. Friedman on his nomination. Yossi Dagan, the head of a regional council of settlers in the West Bank, called Mr. Friedman “a friend and a true partner of Israel and the settlements.”

In the United States, the Republican Jewish Coalition said it hoped Mr. Friedman would “repair relations with our greatest ally in the Middle East that have eroded over the last eight years,” while former Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, said Mr. Friedman would help “build a much closer and stronger” relationship between the United States and Israel.

For the Palestinian leadership, the choice of someone with views at odds with the broad American approach to Israel over decades poses a grave challenge. The office of President Mahmoud Abbas has not yet commented on the appointment.

Other observers, including a number of prominent American Jews, expressed dismay at the choice.

Martin S. Indyk, executive vice president of the Brookings Institution and a former ambassador to Israel, said that Mr. Friedman would be a “a great ambassador for the deep settler state,” referring to right-wing Israels who want to expand their presence in the Palestinian territories. “But David Friedman needs to be U.S. envoy to all Israelis,” Mr. Indyk wrote on Twitter. “Is he up for that?”

Daniel C. Kurtzer, a retired career diplomat and Princeton professor who was ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, under President George W. Bush, said in an interview that the appointment alarmed him. “Mr. Friedman’s published articles and public statements will create significant damage for American interests and for the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace,” Mr. Kurtzer said. “He has made clear that he will appeal to a small minority of Israeli — and American — extremists, ignoring the majority of Israelis who continue to seek peace. Friedman’s appointment as ambassador runs directly contrary to Mr. Trump’s professed desire to make the ‘ultimate deal’ between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Peter Beinart, an author and journalist who has written extensively about Israel, called Mr. Friedman “totally unqualified,” likening his nomination to that of Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has been tapped by Mr. Trump to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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