The Cable

Trump Taps Hardliner to Be U.S. Ambassador to Israel

David Friedman’s hardline views on Israel and its neighbors have drawn either high praise or sharp rebuke from advocacy groups -- but little in between.

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President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, promises a complete change of tack in U.S.-Israeli relations. Friedman’s selection has thrilled Israeli right-wingers — who welcome his unforgiving stance on contentious issues like settlements — but has worried more moderate Israelis and some U.S.-based advocacy organizations.

Friedman, a New York attorney who worked with Trump on some of his casino investments, has taken the Obama administration to the woodshed and pushed for more hawkish policies in Israel. He has accused the Obama administration of “blatant anti-semitism” for not sufficiently supporting Israel, he’s bankrolled Israeli settlements in the contested West Bank territory, and he’s pushed to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a controversial issue given Jerusalem’s disputed territory and hefty religious and political significance.

In a statement the presidential transition team released Thursday evening, Friedman said he looked forward to working “from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” During a call with press on Friday, Trump spokesperson Jason Miller confirmed that moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem “is a commitment that the president-elect made numerous times, that he remains firmly committed to.”

Friedman’s intended nomination comes at a difficult time in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Outgoing President Barack Obama had a strained personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, principally over the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, but also due to the Obama administration’s push in recent years to rein in Israel’s construction of new settlements in the West Bank.

Netanyahu called the the Iranian nuclear deal — one of Obama’s main foreign policy legacies — a “historic mistake for the world.” And under Netanyahu, Israeli settlements have expanded over the Obama administration’s strong objections.

Trump’s pick “was designed to send a signal that there will be significant break in tone, style and perhaps substance from the Obama administration,” according to Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East adviser.

Friedman is the president of the settlement advocacy organization “American Friends of Beit El,” and has vocally supported Israel’s West Bank settlements. Friedman’s views even fall to the right of many conservative leaders in Israel. “The position he advocates is more extreme than any government of Israel has stated,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the United States’ largest Jewish denomination the Union for Reform Judaism, said.

Trump’s promised policies and his ambassadorial pick are sure to anger Palestinian leaders and perhaps U.S. Arab allies. This could derail hopes for a two-state solution, the diplomatic Gordian knot pursued unsuccessfully by presidents both Democrat and Republican since the 1970s.

“The peace process is just dead right now,” Miller said.

Friedman also hasn’t been particularly shy about criticizing his political detractors, including J Street, the Washington-based, liberal advocacy group on Israel-Palestine issues.

“Are J Street supporters really as bad as kapos?,” Friedman asked in an op-ed published in June, criticizing the liberal group’s moderate policies on Israel-Palestinian relations. “The answer, actually, is no. They are far worse than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps,” he wrote.

J Street loves him no less. “Trump’s pick of Friedman for Israel Ambassador is anathema to values that underlie US-Israel relationship. We’ll fight this with all we’ve got,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said.

But other groups praised Trump’s choice. “For those in the Jewish community who voted for Donald Trump — and largely did so because they wanted a change of direction…Mr. Trump’s nomination of David Friedman is a step precisely toward that change of direction,” said Nathan Diament, of the Orthodox Union advocacy center.

Friedman, a graduate of the New York University School of Law, is a found partner of New York law firm Kasowitz Benson Torres and Friedman. He was a legal counsel for Trump in connection with his Atlantic City casino investments, according to the law firm’s website.

“He has been a long-time friend and trusted advisor to me,” Trump said in the statement. “His strong relationships in Israel will form the foundation of his diplomatic mission and be a tremendous asset to our country as we strengthen the ties with our allies and strive for peace in the Middle East.”

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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