If President-elect Donald Trump wanted to show he planned to obliterate President Barack Obama’s approach to Israel, he may have found his man to deliver that message in David Friedman, his pick for U.S. ambassador.
Friedman is everything Obama is not: a fervent supporter of Israeli settlements, opponent of Palestinian statehood and unrelenting defender of Israel’s government. So far to the right is Friedman that even many Israel supporters worry he could push Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to be more extreme, scuttling prospects for peace with Palestinians in the process.
The heated debate over Friedman’s selection is playing out just as fresh tensions erupt between the U.S. and Israel, punctuated last Friday by the Obama administration’s stunning move to allow a U.N. Security Council resolution to pass condemning Israeli settlements as illegal. The move to abstain, rather than veto, defied years of U.S. tradition of shielding Israel from such resolutions, and elicited angry condemnation from Israel, lawmakers of both parties, and especially Trump.
“Things will be different after Jan. 20th,” when he’s sworn in, Trump posted on social media.
Friedman, certainly, is different.
Presidents of both parties have long called for a two-state solution that envisions eventual Palestinian statehood, and Netanyahu says he agrees. Friedman does not. He’s called the two-state solution a mere “narrative” that must end.
Under Obama, the U.S. has worked closely with J Street, an Israel advocacy group sharply critical of Netanyahu. Not Friedman. He accuses Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism” and calls J Street “worse than kapos,” a reference to Jews who helped the Nazis imprison fellow Jews during the Holocaust.
For decades the U.S. has opposed Israeli building in areas seized in the 1967 Six-Day War. Friedman runs a nonprofit that raises millions of dollars for Beit El, in Shomron. So it’s unsurprising that Friedman’s nomination has already sharpened the borders of a growing balkanization of American Jews, between those who want the U.S. to push Israel toward peace and those who believe Obama’s approach abandoned America’s closest Mideast ally.
Educated at Columbia University and NYU School of Law, Friedman developed a reputation as an aggressive, high-stakes bankruptcy attorney, representing Trump when his Atlantic City casinos went through bankruptcy. In the courtroom, he’s known as a formidable opponent, said attorney Tariq Mundiya, Friedman’s adversary in several cases. He said he’d been aware of Friedman’s advocacy on Israel but added, “When you’re in the fog of war with David, the last thing you’re talking about is the Middle East.”
If confirmed, Friedman is expected to be the face of Trump’s dramatic shift in posture. While Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu was famously fraught, Friedman has said Trump will take his cues from Israel’s wishes.
Both Friedman and Trump are particularly focused on moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim, breaking with decades of U.S. reluctance to acknowledge Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital.
Enraged by Trump’s pick, left-leaning groups and Palestinian officials have suggested his confirmation could spell the end of any serious discussions about peace.
Friedman and Trump’s transition team didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Netanyahu has stayed publicly quiet about Trump’s pick. But individuals close to the prime minister said he was pleased with the appointment because he knows Friedman has a direct line to Trump. The individuals weren’t authorized to comment by name and requested anonymity.