March 23, 2017 at 3:35 PM
The Senate on Thursday confirmed David M. Friedman to be the next ambassador to Israel, making him the first of President Trump's selected foreign emissaries to take his post.
Friedman earned the support of only two Democrats in the 52-to-46 vote: Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.). No Republicans opposed him.
Republican support for Friedman was a sure thing despite a rocky confirmation hearing last month, punctuated not only by protesters critical of his statements opposing a Palestinian state and supporting Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but also by Democratic senators concerned about the harsh rhetoric he has used to attack politicians whose Israel policy differs from his.
Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said earlier this month that he would vote against Friedman's nomination because of Friedman's practice of accusing his political opponents of anti-Semitism and a lack of support for Israel, as well as Friedman's stated disdain for the two-state, solution-driven Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Other prominent Jewish Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), voted against Friedman's confirmation as well.
"Mr. Friedman takes extreme positions that will move the two parties further from peace," Feinstein said in a statement Thursday, adding that Friedman was "far too divisive to serve in one of our nation's most sensitive diplomatic positions."
Most Democrats were not convinced by Friedman's efforts to walk back some of his more vitriolic comments during his confirmation hearing.
And following the vote, some Senate Democrats also expressed concern that with Friedman as ambassador, the two-state solution would be in jeopardy.
"The current administration has expressed multiple viewpoints on the future, inviting concern that there may be a departure from decades of bipartisan U.S. support for a two-state solution," Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said in a statement after the vote. "The nomination of Mr. Friedman to serve as ambassador to Israel adds to this concern."
Throughout his campaign and since he took office, Trump has sent varying signals about his Israel policy. He floated the idea of scaling back aid to Israel before walking that back — the Trump administration now says that aid to Israel will not be affected by otherwise severe proposed cuts to foreign aid. He has taken a noncommittal role on settlements, declaring they "may not be helpful" — after blasting the United Nations for voting in December 2016 to condemn Israeli settlement-building activity. And last month, during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the United States, Trump said that he "can live with either" a two-state or a one-state solution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Friedman's appointment has been highly anticipated by right-wing Israelis, especially those living in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. They are hopeful that Friedman's past support for the settlements will translate as U.S. backing for boosting construction in the controversial communities. Most of the world, including the Obama administration, views settlements as illegal and as a major barrier to reigniting the peace process with the Palestinians. Israel disputes this.
In addition, Palestinians, who have been wary until now of perceived pro-Israel stance of the Trump administration, are concerned that Friedman will attempt to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Palestinians believe that this could have a disastrous impact on the peace process and on the stability and security of the volatile region. Several Democratic members of Congress agree.
A phone call between Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week and a subsequent visit by Jason Greenblatt, Trump's special representative for international negotiations, has calmed some of their fears.
Still, the divided, sharply partisan vote was a notable departure from past votes to confirm ambassadors to Israel, which is considered one of the United States' closest allies. Inside the Israeli government, the party-line vote indicated that his confirmation was viewed less as a policy statement by lawmakers than as a statement on Trump's ability to ram through a controversial appointment.
Israel's ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, posted his congratulations on Twitter, saying he was "looking forward to working closely with you to make the U.S.-Israel alliance stronger than ever."
Netanyahu tweeted, "New US ambassador to Israel David Friedman will be warmly welcomed as President Trump's representative and as a close friend of Israel."
Meanwhile, J Street, a liberal Jewish organization that had lobbied against Friedman — and one whose members Friedman has likened to "kapos," or Jewish Holocaust collaborators — noted that "almost half of the Senate voted to oppose this deeply unqualified and inappropriate nominee, whose predecessors had all been confirmed without a single vote against them."
Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.