Trump Pick for Envoy to Israel to Face Grilling Over Peace Plan

  • Lawyer Friedman has Senate confirmation hearing Thursday
  • Nominee has slammed supporters of a two-state solution

One day after President Donald Trump shook up U.S. policy toward the Middle East, his pick for envoy to Israel will confront senators seeking clarity on the administration’s strategy for helping resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer whose support for Israeli settlements and opposition to a two-state solution run counter to previous U.S. positions, will be the first of Trump’s ambassadorial nominees to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he heads to Capitol Hill on Thursday. He was nominated by the president even before Trump announced his pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.

While Friedman, 58, will likely be approved by the Republican-led Senate, he’ll face tough questions over Trump’s position on a two-state solution for the conflict and his support for moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a shift opposed by Arab allies who say it will kill prospects for peace. He’ll also draw fire for his slur against a U.S. Jewish group that’s frequently critical of the Israeli government, likening them to “kapos” -- Jews who oversaw fellow concentration camp prisoners under the Nazis during World War II.

"He has no experience and strong ideological views,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former deputy assistant secretary of state and now a resident expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “I’m skeptical that he has enough understanding and sensitivity to the issues of the region.”

For a QuickTake on the two-state idea, click here

The hearing comes a day after Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington. During a joint news conference on Wednesday, Trump said he would be open to a Mideast peace agreement that doesn’t include separate states for Israel and the Palestinians, abandoning a U.S. position that has underpinned more than a decade of failed negotiations between the two sides.

“I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said of the path to peace. “I can live with either one. I thought for a while that two states looked like the easier of the two. If Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I like the one they like the best.”

Trump’s statement was hailed by conservatives in Israel, with Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home Party, calling it a “new era.”

But the president also said Israel should “hold back on settlements for a little bit” in areas Palestinians believe should be part of their territory in any peace deal. The international community, including the United Nations, regards Israeli settlements as illegal.

Recalibrating Ties

"Both sides would have to make compromises -- you know that, right?" Trump said to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is trying to recalibrate ties with Israel’s top ally after eight years of high-profile clashes with former President Barack Obama, in part over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. He sees a chance for a warmer relationship with Trump, who shares his alarm over the Iran nuclear deal and Islamic extremists.

In the lead up to Thursday’s hearing, J-Street, a U.S. Jewish organization that has lobbied for the two-state solution, published on its website some of Friedman’s more controversial views and statements. Friedman is prepared to apologize in his hearing for his most inflammatory comments, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified because the plans haven’t been made public.

As the head of an organization that raises several million dollars a year for the controversial West Bank settlement of Beit El, Friedman knows well the concerns of Israeli settlers. His pugnacious approach may also appeal to the Israeli government, said professor Eytan Gilboa, expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. 

“He’ll be able to present the Israeli position to the Trump administration, more than a professional ambassador would," Gilboa said. However, he’ll still follow orders, he added. “Ambassadors are civil servants -- they fulfill what the president tells them to do. They’re not independent entities."

— With assistance by Jonathan Ferziger, and Michael Arnold

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