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.
The bankruptcy lawyer and son of an Orthodox rabbi 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 Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin 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 vowed on Twitter.
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 settlement-building in lands it seized in the 1967 Mideast War. Friedman runs a nonprofit that raises millions of dollars for Beit El, a settlement of religious nationalists near Ramallah. Beit El runs a right-wing news oulet and a yeshiva whose dean has provocatively urged Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to uproot settlers from their homes.
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.
It’s a debate playing out even at Temple Hillel, near the Long Island-Queens border, where Friedman’s father was rabbi for almost half a century.
“Clearly, David’s opinions do not appeal to everybody in the synagogue, and they appeal to others in the synagogue,” said Ken Fink, the synagogue’s president and longtime congregant. “But there’s a huge amount of pride for the hometown boy.”