David Friedman spent a lifetime criticizing anyone to the left of Bibi Netanyahu. Now he says he’s sorry.
- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
President Donald Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel recanted a laundry list of his previous remarks and positions on Thursday in a confirmation hearing that even Republicans called “extraordinary” for the number of times he expressed regret for prior comments.
David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer and longtime friend of Trump, said he regretted calling former President Barack Obama anti-semitic and disparaging the entire State Department and large swaths of liberal Jews.
“Some of the language that I used during the highly-charged presidential campaign that ended last November has come in for criticism and rightfully so,” Friedman said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “While I maintain profound differences of opinion with some of my critics, I regret the use of such language.”
Prior to the hearing, Friedman staked out views far outside the mainstream of American foreign policy, including support for Israeli settlements considered illegal by the international community and the annexation of the West Bank, territory Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. He has also raised millions of dollars toward settlements, including one near the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
In his writings, he has called members of J Street, a liberal Jewish group, worse than “kapos,” a word for Jews who collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. He also described U.S. allies who have joined the fight against the Islamic State as a group of “cowards, freeloaders and hypocrites.”
Rather than defend his positions, Friedman calmly attributed his long record of inflammatory remarks as the result of the heated presidential campaign and vowed to moderate his statements as a diplomat.
“I have reached out over the last few months to a number of people who have been hurt by the things I have said,” he said. He specifically mentioned an exchange with Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the anti-Defamation league, which he called a bunch of “morons.”
The hearing came a day after Trump refused to endorse explicitly a two-state solution, a break from U.S. foreign policy since 2002. Trump also implored Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “hold back on the settlements a bit” and expressed optimism that his administration would be able to achieve a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
“The United States will encourage a peace and, really, a great peace deal,” Trump said
On Thursday, Friedman seemed more skeptical, saying “the challenges are daunting.”
Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a close Trump ally, told Friedman he found it “fairly extraordinary” to see him “recant every strongly-held belief that you had.” He asked him to clarify why he’s willing to reverse himself on so many previous statements.
“The opportunity to serve my country as Israel’s ambassador would be the fulfillment of a life’s work,” Friedman replied. “This is something I really want to do because I think I can do it well. There’s nothing more important to me than strengthening the bonds between the United States and Israel.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) described a pattern in Friedman’s past remarks in which U.S. officials who expressed any criticism of the state of Israel were described as anti-semitic. He said he wondered if Friedman would accuse former Republican President Ronald Reagan of being anti-semitic. Reagan, like other U.S. presidents, also criticized Israel’s expansionist settlement policies.
Udall went on to call Friedman “completely unfit for this or any other diplomatic office.”
Though some Republicans on the committee expressed mild discomfort with Friedman’s remarks, many said his stinging criticisms of Palestinians was reasonable given the terrorist attacks directed at the state of Israel, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. James Risch of Idaho. Congressional aides in both parties told Foreign Policy that the lack of Republican criticism suggested that Friedman would likely pass the confirmation process, especially given fears by some Democrats of being viewed as insufficiently pro-Israel.
During the hearing, several pro-peace and pro-Palestinian protesters were thrown out of the room for disrupting Friedman’s testimony, including one protester with a Palestinian flag.
Ahead of the hearing, five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel warned the committee that Friedman is unqualified due to his “extreme, radical positions,” including opposing a two-state solution.
The ambassadors who signed the letter served Republican and Democratic presidents. They included Thomas Pickering, William Harrop, Edward Walker, Daniel Kurtzer and James Cunningham.
Friedman, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, enjoys the support of far-right pro-Israel groups such as the Zionist Organization of America and Christians United for Israel.