BEIT EL, West Bank (AP) — President Donald Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel may be causing controversy in Washington. But in this West Bank settlement, he is a well-known friend.
At his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, David Friedman faced a grilling about his ties to Beit El, a community north of Jerusalem located in the heart of the occupied territory Palestinians want for an independent state.
Friedman is a major donor to the settlement and serves as the president of the American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva, the U.S. fundraising arm of its Jewish seminary and affiliated institutions, including high schools, an Israeli military prep academy, a newspaper for the religious Jewish settler community and the right-wing news site Arutz Sheva.
On Thursday, Friedman defended his affiliation with Beit El, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he was not connected to its political activities, which “I really have no part in.”
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Instead, he said, all the money that he has helped raise has been to support construction of dormitories, gyms, classrooms and similar facilities. “It primarily derives from my commitment to Jewish education,” Friedman said. “The quality of those schools is excellent.”
Questioned by senators during the lengthy hearing, Friedman also said he doesn’t support Israeli annexation of the West Bank and acknowledged that expanding settlements beyond their existing borders could be unhelpful to peace efforts.
Before Trump was elected, a string of U.S. presidents, along with the Palestinians and international community, opposed settlements built in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as obstacles to peace. The Palestinians seek both territories, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for their hoped-for state.
At a high-profile White House meeting on Wednesday, Trump abandoned those positions. He asked the visiting Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to “hold back on settlements for a little bit,” but also promised to “work something out.” He then said the U.S. is no longer necessarily committed to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, saying he would accept any arrangement worked out by the parties.
But even by Trump’s new standards, Friedman appears to be extreme. A bankruptcy lawyer and son of an Orthodox rabbi, Friedman is a fervent supporter of the settlements and an outspoken opponent of Palestinian statehood.
In Beit El, the Friedman Faculty House, which bears his and his wife’s names on the facade, is built on private Palestinian land without permission from its Palestinian landowners, according to the anti-settlement watchdog Kerem Navot.
A website connected to Friedman’s fundraising group describes Beit El’s institutions as “‘facts on the ground’ in the face of the international community’s desire to uproot us.”
Such views are unprecedented for U.S. ambassadors to Israel, who in the past, whether from Republican or Democratic administrations, have avoided travel to settlements.
On Wednesday, five former U.S. ambassadors issued a letter saying that Friedman is unqualified and has staked out “extreme, radical positions.” They urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to carefully consider the nomination.
Friedman’s ties to Beit El are just one of the reasons he could face a stormy confirmation hearing.
As a columnist for the Beit El-affiliated Arutz Sheva news site, Friedman has railed against the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is backed by many American Jewish organizations. He also has infuriated many by referring to U.S. Jews who support the liberal pro-Israel advocacy group J Street as “kapos,” the Jews who assisted Nazis in concentration camps. He has also accused Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism.”
During Thursday’s hearing, Friedman expressed regret over some of his past comments and vowed to use more measured language if he is confirmed.
Beit El resident Daniel Aviya, who makes religious phylacteries called Tefillin, said he thinks Friedman will make an excellent ambassador. He described Friedman as “someone who knows Israel because he was here — not because he read the newspapers that the Arab population is very good at using on their side.”
Yoni Fromwitz, who also works at the Tefillin factory, said he believes Friedman will keep his personal feelings in check if he becomes ambassador.
“If he comes to spend some time here on a personal level, that’s between him and his wife and God,” Fromwitz said. “As far as his job is concerned, I believe he is enough of a professional that he will truly represent whatever the Trump government decides whenever they get around to deciding.”
In a financial disclosure report to the U.S. State Department, Friedman pledged to resign from his position with the Beit El fundraising arm should he be confirmed as ambassador to Israel.