Trump pick for ambassador to Israel riles Palestinians

David Friedman, a longtime friend of the US president-elect, supports Israeli settlement and says he wants to move US embassy to "Israel's eternal capital, Jerusalem".

David Friedman, US president-elect Donald Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel. Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP via AP
Powered by automated translation

JERUSALEM // President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for US ambassador to Israel supports settlements on the occupied West Bank and questions the “two-state” solution to conflict with the Palestinians.

Should anyone be in any doubt about his views, would-be ambassador David Friedman nailed his colours to the mast when he said he looked forward to carrying out his duties from the American embassy “in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem”.

But the Trump team said on Friday it was too soon to say when the president-elect would make good on his controversial campaign promise to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The move would be a politically charged act guaranteed to enrage the Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as part of their sovereign territory, and would also be at odds with most of America’s allies in western Europe and the Arab world.

Nor does the nomination of Mr Friedman, 57, a longtime friend of Mr Trump, have universal approval among Jews. Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal Jewish group, said it was reckless and would damage US credibility in the region.

The left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz said Mr Friedman "makes Benjamin Netanyahu seem like a left-wing defeatist".

Mr Friedman’s remark about the embassy was met with dismay from Palestinians. Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the politics committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a supporter of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said, “He’s damn wrong in making that statement. He’s not a policymaker, he’s a policy implementer. He’s exceeding his mandate as ambassador and expressing his sentiment as a Zionist supporter of the rightist government of Israel and that’s not diplomacy. We don’t yet know what the policy of the new administration will be.”

However, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday joined settlers in welcoming US president-elect Donald Trump’s choice for ambassador. A source in Mr Netanyahu’s office said the premier was “pleased” with the appointment.

“He knows David Friedman has the full confidence of president-elect Trump and looks forward to working closely with him,” said the source. Earlier, deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely called the appointment “good news for Israel”, adding, “His positions reflect the will to strengthen the status of Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, at this time and an understanding that the settlements have never been the real problem in the region.”

Mr Friedman is an attorney specialising in bankruptcy and served as an adviser on Israel to Mr Trump during the election campaign. In policy papers he has said the two-state solution is “not a priority” and was open to alternatives. On the subject of settlements, Mr Friedman has said Mr Trump would “not dictate to Israel where it can and cannot build”.

How Mr Trump would honour the pledge to shift the embassy from Tel Aviv is unclear but one option would involve Mr Friedman – if he is confirmed in the post by the US senate – working out of an existing US consulate in Jerusalem. Wherever the ambassador happens to be becomes the de facto embassy.

Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush promised to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, but backed out once in office.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the war of 1967 and annexed it, claiming the entire city as the capital of Israel – a claim that is not internationally-recognised. The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem, home to Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, as the capital of their future state. Consequently, nearly all embassies are in or around Tel Aviv.

“Moving the embassy would be a deviation from the policy of every country in the world because no country recognises Israel’s presence in West Jerusalem let alone the united city of Jerusalem, “ said Mr Abdullah.

“All international resolutions whether security council or other international organisations don’t recognise Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem. If America wants to change that, it will have to bear the consequences. It won’t be business as usual.”

The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat this week said he had talked to Mr Trump’s staff about a potential move for the embassy and felt the president-elect was serious about it.

The Yesha council, which represents the more than 400,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, praised the new ambassador-designate.

Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the council said Mr Friedman had a “deep love for all of the land and people of Israel, including those in Judea and Samaria” – the West Bank’s biblical names – and would offer a welcome change to decades of American envoys who viewed the settlements as an obstacle to peace.

By convention, American ambassadors to Israel have avoided even visiting settlements.

* with additional reporting by Associated Press