03.13.17

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Nomination of David Friedman to be U.S. Ambassador to Israel

Mr. President, the Senate will soon consider the nomination of David Friedman to be U.S. Ambassador to Israel.  

Unlike several of President Trump’s other nominees, we know a great deal about Mr. Friedman’s views on the challenges he would confront if confirmed.  

Unfortunately, that is because he has made a career of disparaging and inflammatory statements about U.S. policy in the Middle East, about former U.S. officials, about the Palestinians, and about American Jews who have views that differ from his own. 

We have all had the opportunity to read articles Mr. Friedman has written and to hear the outrageous, unfounded verbal attacks he has launched against those who disagree with him.  

He has written falsely that President Obama and Secretary Kerry engaged in “blatant anti-Semitism;” that liberal American Jews are “far worse than kapos” and that they “suffer a cognitive disconnect in identifying good and evil”.

That the State Department has a “hundred-year history of anti-Semitism,” apparently because diplomats in both Republican and Democratic administrations have not always seen eye-to-eye with some of Israel’s leaders; and that Israel’s policy of  “criticizing disloyal Arab citizens while simultaneously bestowing upon them the benefits of citizenship, simply isn’t working.”

Those comments alone should disqualify him for this sensitive position, and it is no surprise that tens of thousands of Americans have signed petitions circulated by pro-Israel groups opposing his nomination.

Mr. Friedman has also raised millions of dollars for Israeli settlers, and bragged about leading the effort to remove the two-state solution from the Republican Party’s platform.  

Regarding the two-state solution, he wrote that it is “an illusion that serves the worst intentions of both the United States and the Palestinian Arabs,” in one of the many articles he has penned for a right-wing Israeli media outlet.  That unequivocal renunciation of longstanding U.S. policy should also, by itself, disqualify him from the job of Ambassador to Israel.

These statements and actions not only indicate his rejection of decades of bipartisan policy; they are the words of someone who makes a mockery of the term “diplomat” and who has demonstrated no ability to be objective and constructive on sensitive issues of immense importance to U.S. security.   

Mr. Friedman is certainly entitled to his own views as a private citizen, even if they are offensive and counter to U.S. interests and values.  But can anyone honestly say that this nominee is qualified or suited to represent the American people in Israel?  

Five former U.S. Ambassadors to Israel, who served under Republican and Democratic Presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, are among the thousands of Americans who say the answer is no. 

We are being asked to reconcile Mr. Friedman’s record, his personal views, and his deep ties to extreme factions in Israel, with his responsibility to objectively advance and defend U.S. interests.  Unless one believes, as he has repeatedly made clear he does, that the interests of the United States are always identical to Israel’s, there is no way Mr. Friedman should be confirmed.

For as long as I have been in the Senate I cannot recall a time when we were not at a critical point in our relations with Israel – not because of doubts about the enduring value of the relationship, but as a reflection of the importance of the deep partnership between our governments and people.  

Most importantly, it is a result of our conviction that security, stability, and prosperity in Israel and in the wider region are important to our own national security.

That is why President Obama signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel that included the single largest pledge of U.S. military aid to any country – ever – and why both Democratic and Republican Administrations have put so much effort into pursuing peace between Israelis and Palestinians.    

An alliance as longstanding as ours with Israel, which has far-reaching consequences for the entire Middle East and beyond, requires effective daily management by an experienced diplomat who not only has knowledge of the region but the necessary temperament and appreciation of our country’s short- and long-term interests.

I do not see how anyone could conclude that Mr. Friedman possesses the requisite temperament, nor am I convinced that he appreciates the critical distinction between the interests of the United States, and the parochial interests of an extreme constituency in Israel that he has fiercely advocated for over the course of his long career.  

Indeed, it is telling that the spokesman for Beit El, the Israeli settlement that Mr. Friedman has supported financially for years, said its inhabitants would regard him as their representative in the United States.  Is that the role of a U.S. Ambassador?  Of course not, but that is how Mr. Friedman is perceived in Israel because that is the way he has behaved.

Every U.S. President has understood the importance and heightened sensitivity of this post, and they chose their nominees accordingly – until now.  That is why every previous nominee to be Ambassador to Israel has been confirmed by voice vote or unanimous consent, while Mr. Friedman was confirmed by a narrow 12-9 largely party line vote in the Foreign Relations Committee.     

Mr. Friedman’s confirmation hearing provided him the opportunity to assuage concerns about his divisiveness, including the many disparaging remarks he has made and his close identification with and support for the Israeli settler movement.  

During the hearing he renounced his undiplomatic language, suggesting it was delivered in the heat of the election cycle and in his capacity as a private citizen.  

In fact, he recanted so much of what he has said – which far predates the election cycle – that Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Corker asked why he was willing to disavow so much of his past record in order to earn the Committee’s support.

In response, Mr. Friedman described the role of U.S. Ambassador to Israel as [quote] “the fulfillment of a life’s dream, of a life’s work, of a life of study of the people, the culture, the politics of Israeli society.”  

There is an important distinction between knowing and respecting a country’s history and people, and believing that one’s own personal ambition and that country’s interests are inextricably linked.  

Mr. Friedman’s remarkable confirmation conversion falls far short of convincing evidence that changing his title to “Ambassador” will cause him to divorce his life’s work and objectively serve our national interests.

If Mr. Friedman is confirmed he should immediately untangle his business and personal interests in Israel, and commit to being the representative of all Americans – conservative and liberal Jews and non-Jews – and a genuine partner in efforts to promote security and stability for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

We all want what is best for the American people.  We also share a desire to find a viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that protects the rights and security of both peoples.

Neither goal can be achieved by pursuing policies that further inflame tensions in the region and erode the role of the United States as an honest broker for peace.  

There are any number of qualified Americans who could capably support that role.  Mr. Friedman is not among them.

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