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Trump's pick for Israel envoy to undergo unprecedented Senate grilling

Senate Democrats vow tough hearing on David Friedman as advocates of a two-state solution ramp up their lobbying.
Attorney David Friedman (R) walks with U.S. businessman Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson as they arrive at a private fundraiser for then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in the Manhattan borough of New York City, June 21, 2016. Friedman is U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's designated Ambassador to Israel. Picture taken June 21, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTX2XAMV

Senate Democrats are vowing to challenge President Donald Trump's choice for envoy to Israel over his hard-line, pro-settlement views. 

The concerns over David Friedman mark a dramatic shift from the near-unanimous support that nominees for the position have enjoyed for decades. They represent the latest example of the fraying bipartisan consensus over Israel policy, as left-leaning supporters of a two-state solution increasingly find themselves at odds with right-leaning pro-Israel advocates such as Friedman, who has compared the former to Nazi collaborators.

"Some of the language that he has been quoted using against leaders of the Jewish community here I find really inflammatory," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Middle East panel. "There are some things I'm very interested in exploring with him."

Other Democrats on the panel, which has jurisdiction over diplomatic nominations, shared similar concerns.

"What I've read is concerning. But I want to let him make his case," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told Al-Monitor. "It's certainly an out-of-the-box choice. But everything this administration is doing so far is out of the box."

Asked if he'd heard about the controversy around Friedman, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., chuckled. "Oh yeah," he said. 

"Focusing solely on the views of the nominee may miss the larger point. Which is, what direction is the president taking?" Coons said. "Because at the end of the day, President Trump is going to be the driver of US-Israel policy. Not the ambassador. His views are relevant and important — and they have raised some concerns — but I look forward to meeting with him and giving him a full and fair chance to explain his approach to US-Israel relations."

Coons went on to say he had a "whole series of what will be difficult questions about US-Israel policy" for Friedman, and would approach his nomination "with an open mind."

Some longtime US diplomats have also been skeptical of Friedman.

Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs under President Bill Clinton and a former ambassador to Israel in 1985-1988, said lawmakers should assure themselves that Friedman's well-documented support for Israeli settlements won't clash with US policy on the matter. Recent presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, have criticized settlement expansion as counterproductive while avoiding taking a position on their legality until this past December, when the Barack Obama administration abstained from a UN Security Council resolution declaring them a "flagrant violation under international law."

"The role of the US ambassador in Israel is to accurately and precisely and firmly reflect US government opinions and, in exactly the same vein, report back to the US government on opinions and thoughts and ideas in Israel," Pickering told Al-Monitor. "And the Senate ought to be satisfied that any candidate for any nomination — particularly this very important one — is prepared to do that. On the basis of [Friedman's] reported past views, it would be important for the Senate to satisfy itself that he will meet the high standard that is required of ambassadors." 

Senate Democrats made clear they haven't had much time to read up on Friedman and have yet to meet with him as they focus on Trump's other nominees. With Rex Tillerson's approval Feb. 1 as secretary of state, however, the committee is expected to start taking up Trump's other diplomatic nominees fairly soon. 

To focus senators' attention, Friedman opponents have been ramping up their lobbying against him.

Lara Friedman, the director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, penned an op-ed in The Hill last week reminding lawmakers that Friedman has called the left-wing Israel policy group J Street "worse than kapos" and denounced what he called the "hundred-year history of anti-Semitism" at the State Department he's now slated to join. And on Jan. 31, J Street called on its members to urge senators to vote against Friedman, who has called for putting an end to what he called the "two-state narrative."

Friedman's opponents know getting a significant number of Democrats — much less a majority of the Republican-controlled Senate — to vote against him is a long shot. But they're buoyed by Democrats' willingness to stand up to Trump's nominees, including unprecedented opposition to Tillerson, who cleared the Senate with an unprecedented 43 votes against him, including every Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee except Coons, who was absent.

Friedman's critics in the Jewish community include the Union for Reform Judaism, the nation's largest Jewish denomination. The Zionist Organization of America, by contrast, has embraced him for his deep appreciation for the "political, historic, legal and religious rights of the Jews to Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem."

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