- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2017

President Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel apologized for disparaging statements he’s made about Palestinians, liberal American Jews and others during a tense confirmation hearing Thursday, as the administration sent out new mixed signals on its approach to Mideast peace.

David Friedman, a New York bankruptcy attorney with no prior diplomatic experience, said he “regret[s]” comments he made during “the highly charged presidential campaign” — he once accused the State Department of “anti-Semitism” — and vowed he’ll be “respectful and measured” if confirmed as ambassador.

It wasn’t clear whether the Senate will confirm Mr. Friedman, whose mea culpa came a day after Mr. Trump made headlines with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by saying Washington is no longer necessarily committed to a so-called “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The two-state approach has long been a bedrock of U.S. and international policy toward Mideast peace and the gravity of Mr. Trump’s comments were still being felt Thursday, when administration-appointed Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley suddenly announced that the U.S. actually does still stand behind the approach.

“The two-state solution is what we support. Anybody that wants to say the United States does not support the two-state solution, that would be an error,” Mrs. Haley told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York, although she added, “we are thinking out of the box as well, which is, what does it take to bring these two sides to the table?”

That comment served as part of the backdrop for Mr. Friedman’s hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Thursday, where several lawmakers grilled the nominee over his own views on the two-state issue.

Israeli news has described Mr. Friedman as an Orthodox Jew, who resides part time in Israel, where he has reportedly raised millions in support of Israeli settlements — the construction of which on West Bank land that Palestinians want for an independent state has long been blamed for the two-state solution’s demise.

Despite having written in an op-ed last August that there “has never been” a two-state solution, only a “two-state narrative,” Mr. Friedman sought to present himself Thursday as undecided on the matter and open to anything that might generate peace, as long as Palestinians “renounce terror and accept Israel as a Jewish state.”

“If the Israelis and the Palestinians were able, through direct negotiations to achieve a two-state solution,” he said, “I would be delighted.”

But there were other issues that sparked heat during the hearing, stemming mainly from other op-eds Mr. Friedman has penned for the Israeli website Arutz Sheva. In one, last July, he characterized supporters of the liberal, U.S.-based Jewish organization J Street as “far worse than kapos” — a reference to Jews who cooperated with Nazis during the Holocaust.

On Wednesday, five former U.S. ambassadors circulated a letter describing Mr. Friedman as unqualified because of his “extreme” and “radical positions,” and urged the Senate to weigh his nomination with extreme care.

Mr. Friedman has accused President Obama and the entire State Department of anti-Semitism,” they wrote. “He propagated the false conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton’s advisor Huma Abedin ‘has well-established ties to the Muslim Brotherhood’; [and] he has referred to the Anti-Defamation League as ‘morons.’”

Protests broke out in the audience during Thursday’s hearing, with U.S. Capitol Police scrambling to remove the disruptors. One protester held up a Palestinian flag and shouted: “Palestinians will always be in Palestine.” Others, saying they were “American Jews” against Mr. Friedman, yelled: “David Friedman you promote racism” and “you do not and you will not represent us.”

Some Republicans stood up for the nominee. While not a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina introduced him at the hearing, saying that “if Israel ever needed a strong voice in her court, it is now” and Mr. Friedman “is the right guy at the right time.”

The Republican National Committee also circulated a statement after the hearing — a rare move in the case of ambassador nominations — that cited a range of people who supported the nominee and asserted that his testimony had “confirmed his deep devotion and commitment to fostering a strong relationship between the U.S. and Israel.”

But Democrats, who hold just 10 of the committee’s 21 seats, were deeply critical. “If we confirm him, we are running a dangerous risk that Mr. Friedman will inflame a volatile situation,” said Tom Udall of New Mexico. “We need a steady hand of the Middle East, not a bomb thrower.”

Sen. Cory Booker, New Jersey Democrat, asked Mr. Friedman if he really thought President Obama was “anti-Semitic.”

“Not at all senator,” Mr. Friedman responded. “I don’t believe that for a second.”

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