Donald Trump's Pick for US Ambassador to Israel Signals Changes in US Policy

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Donald Trump's Pick for US Ambassador to Israel Signals Changes in US Policy
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Donald Trump's Pick for US Ambassador to Israel Signals Changes in US Policy (ABC News)

President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel is drawing wide-ranging reactions from jubilant praise to heated criticism.

Trump’s choice, David Friedman, holds distinctly conservative views in direct opposition to long-standing U.S. policy positions. Friedman opposes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, actively supports Israeli settlements and advocates for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, maintaining that the occupied Palestinian Territories are not occupied.

Most notably, he also wants to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a disputed city of which both Israelis and Palestinians claim ownership. Jerusalem is home to the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, and the Israeli Prime Minister's office.

Friedman, who has no career experience with either policy or diplomacy, is an Orthodox Jewish lawyer who advised Trump during the campaign. A close friend and confidant of Trump, he specialized in bankruptcy law and represented Trump in his investments in Atlantic City casinos.

He serves as one of the co-chairmen of the Israel Advisory Committee to Trump, alongside Jason Greenblatt, another Orthodox Jewish lawyer from New York City.

In an op-ed Friday in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, its U.S. editor Chemi Shalev argued that Friedman “makes Netanyahu seem like a left-wing defeatist.” (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office had yet to comment on Trump’s pick.)

Netanyahu's main political rival, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, wished Friedman good luck Friday, describing him as "a great friend of Israel."

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely "welcomed" the nomination of Friedman on her Facebook page Friday, describing it as "good news for Israel."

Among those who have also congratulated Friedman is the Zionist Organization of America, whose president, Morton Klein, said Friedman has “the potential to be the greatest U.S. ambassador to Israel ever.”

Matt Brooks, executive director of the lobbying group Republican Jewish Coalition, tweeted “great choice!”

“David is someone who understands the President’s vision and will strengthen the US-Israel relationship,” Brooks wrote.

How a Trump Administration Could Reshape the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

But not everyone is thrilled with Trump’s choice, which requires Senate confirmation.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal advocacy group J Street, said Friedman was “anathema to values that underlie U.S.-Israel relationship” and promised to fight his confirmation.

Friedman has previously called J Street “far worse than kapos,” referring to Jews who assisted Nazis during the Holocaust.

Joining the chorus of discontent is the lobbying organization National Jewish Democratic Council, which tweeted that there “hasn’t ever been a less experienced pick for US [ambassador] to Israel."

Lara Friedman, the director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, a nonprofit that seeks a political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said, “I don’t know about the Palestinians, but I know Jews who truly care about Israel’s security, democracy & place in the world are outraged.”

Responding to the news, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters Friday, "who Donald Trump appoints ... is his business. What is not Trump's business is to determine capitals of other nations."

Erekat added, "I look David Friedman and Trump in the eye and tell them -- if you were to take these steps of moving the embassy and annexing settlements in the West Bank, you are sending this region down the path of something that I call chaos, lawlessness and extremism." These moves, Erekat said, would "destroy" the peace process.

Israeli Settlements

The United Nations considers Israeli settlements illegal under international law. For its part, the Obama administration has routinely "strongly condemned" Israeli plans to build a new Jewish settlement in the West Bank and that such actions undermine the ability to achieve a two-state solution.

Friedman, as the president of the American Friends of Bet El Institutions, associated with the Jewish settlement of Bet El, has consistently and actively supported the construction of new settlements. Friedman, already a frequent visitor, also owns property in Jerusalem.

“I think the West Bank was captured from Jordan in a defensive war,” he told ABC News at an October Trump rally in Israel. “The Jordanians haven’t sought to repatriate that land so I think; I’m a lawyer, under international law I don’t think these settlements are illegal.”

Trump’s take: In an interview with Israel's Army Radio, Jason Greenblatt, co-chairman of the Trump campaign’s Israel Advisory Committee, said, “It is certainly not Mr. Trump’s view that settlement activities should be condemned and that it is an obstacle for peace, because it is not an obstacle for peace.”

In the same ABC News interview from October, Friedman echoed Greenblatt’s view, saying he believed Trump saw the settlements as legal, a major break in U.S. policy.

Jerusalem

U.S. administrations from both parties have long recognized Jerusalem as the thorniest issue in any peace process, maintaining that the final status of the city should be resolved in negotiations between the two. Most foreign nations keep their embassies in nearby Tel Aviv, including the U.S. Embassy since 1966.

Friedman is a staunch proponent of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In the Trump transition team statement announcing Freidman’s nomination, Friedman said he looked forward to representing the United States from “the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

He told ABC News that if State Department employees refused to move the embassy, they'd be fired.

Trump’s take: The president-elect said he would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which he has also called "the eternal capital of the Jewish people."

In a call with reporters Friday morning, Trump spokesman Jason Miller affirmed Trump's commitment to do so, pointing out that Trump made that promise "numerous" times during the campaign. Miller did not speculate on a timeline for that move or potential sites for the embassy.

In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also pledged to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

Two-State Solution

Friedman has been pessimistic about the idea of a two-state solution, a framework that envisions independent Israeli and Palestinian states on either side of the Jordan River.

The United States does not currently recognize a Palestinian state, but since 2012 it has enjoyed non-member observer status at the United Nations.

“A two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians appears impossible as long as the Palestinians are unwilling to renounce violence against Israel or recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” Friedman wrote in a post for Medium, along with Greenblatt.

“The U.S. cannot support the creation of a new state where terrorism is financially incentivized, terrorists are celebrated by political parties and government institutions, and the corrupt diversion of foreign aid is rampant,” the pair added. “The U.S. should not support the creation of a state that forbids the presence of Christian or Jewish citizens, or that discriminates against people on the basis of religion.”

Friedman views that the United States doesn't necessarily have to pursue that solution, but America should support Israel's own decision.

"He’s not going to adopt the view that George Bush took in 2004, that it’s an American imperative for there to be a two-state solution. It’s not," Friedman has said.

Trump’s take: He has said he would veto any resolution aimed at an agreement between Israel and Palestine proposed by the United Nations Security Council and said the entire U.N. is "not a friend of democracy" and "surely is not a friend to Israel.”

We must stand firm against the UN's ploy to sabotage Israel---if the UN grants the PA statehood then we must immediately defund it.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 1, 2011

But that doesn’t mean a U.S.-brokered agreement is off the table. Trump has called the Israeli-Palestinian solution “the ultimate deal.”

“As a deal maker, I’d like to do … the deal that can’t be made. And do it for humanity’s sake,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal.

Friedman has said that a Trump administration would not advocate any particular solution between the Israelis and Palestinians.

“The view is that the Israeli electorate is a peace-loving electorate, a very informed electorate,” he said. “They choose their leaders very carefully. It’s a very robust democracy and ultimately they have to live with the consequences. And so the position of the Trump Administration will be to support the decision of the Israeli people to achieve peace as they see fit.”

“I don’t see anything [Trump] would propose that would be acceptable to Palestinians,” University of Michigan Professor Victor Lieberman told ABC News.

Lieberman, who teaches a history class on the 100-plus-year conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, said moving the embassy to Jerusalem, allowing additional Israeli settlements and annexing territory in the West Bank would be seen as unilateral actions by Israel, not steps toward a peaceful solution.

With Trump’s choice of Friedman, his administration seems poised to alter the U.S. position in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Lieberman posits that perhaps with the support of a Trump administration, Israel could “change the rules of the game and hope they become permanent.” If this occurs, Palestinians’ resentment is bound to continue, he said.

But Israelis are scared of a potential “hostile state” on its border, too, Lieberman continued. Therein lies the most basic elements of this historic conflict that U.S. presidential administrations have consistently tried to solve.

Lieberman doesn’t see another international actor that could step in to effectively mediate the two sides. A Trump White House doesn’t appear now, at least, to be a step toward reconciliation.

“The era of Palestinian State is over,” right-wing politician Naftali Bennett declared after the election.

He may be right.

ABC News’ Justin Fishel and Ben Siegel contributed to this reporting.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the United States considers Israeli settlements illegal. The United States believes settlements are an impediment to a two-state solution, but has only rejected some as illegal under Israeli law, according to the U.S. State Department.

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