President Trump’s ambassador to Israel has riled congressional Democrats for what they say is an effort to “politicize” the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
David Friedman, who was formerly one of Trump’s bankruptcy lawyers, was quoted in an Israeli newspaper as saying Republicans were a better friend to Israel than Democrats.
He was apparently basing that opinion, at least in part, on the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed holy city of Jerusalem, as Israel wanted.
The move reversed decades of U.S. policy and international consensus, and angered the Arab world and American allies in Europe. As part of the controversial decision, Trump also declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.
“There’s no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats,” Friedman told the Times of Israel.
He said that he wanted the issue of U.S.-Israeli relations to be bipartisan, and would work to keep it that way, but that a “large Democratic constituency” was “not pro-Israel.”
Democrats, he said, refuse to acknowledge “that they have not been able to create support within their constituency for Israel at the same levels that the Republicans have.”
The Times of Israel, which published its story Thursday, included a “lightly edited” transcript of the hourlong interview, which the publication said was conducted the day before. Friedman has not denied the accuracy of the quotes attributed to him. In Washington, the State Department declined to comment.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland on Friday became the latest of several Democrats, including some who are Jewish, to denounce Friedman’s comments. They demand that his remarks be investigated and perhaps even that Friedman be recalled.
The ambassador’s statements were “wrong, insensitive, and demonstrate his ill-preparedness to be a suitable diplomat to one of our most important allies and friends in the world,” Cardin said.
A senior member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Cardin said the remarks represented a “troubling and unfortunate setback” for the pursuit of peace in the Middle East.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, branded Friedman’s statements “outrageous.”
“Diplomacy and partisan politics are incompatible,” Engel said. “If Mr. Friedman doesn’t understand that, he should come home.”
Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) said the ambassador’s “harmful” words undermine “the necessary efforts to sustain bipartisan support for Israel’s security.”
Friedman, who had no prior diplomatic experience, has been a controversial figure since his narrow confirmation by the Senate last year. He has supported the Israeli settler movement, which erects Jewish enclaves in lands claimed by the Palestinians. Most of the world considers the settlements illegal under the Geneva Convention, which bans a country from moving a population into occupied territory.
As recently as this week, at a rally in Nashville, Trump called Friedman “my great diplomat” and repeated an oft-used story in which the president falsely claims to have saved American taxpayers more than half a billion dollars to “build” a new embassy in Jerusalem.
In fact, a new embassy has yet to be built. For now, the U.S. is using a retrofitted wing of an existing U.S. consulate building in a Jerusalem neighborhood.
Part of the partisan dispute with Friedman is related to his attendance at a May 14 inauguration ceremony for the Jerusalem embassy. Several GOP congressional members were there but no Democrats.
The Democrats have complained they weren’t invited; Friedman said anyone was welcome to attend.
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center published in 2016, 64% of American Jews identify themselves as leaning Democratic and 26% as leaning Republican.
Trump has said his administration is preparing a comprehensive plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that could be unveiled at any time, though he has offered no details. Leading the effort are his son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, who is a friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and whose family is also a strong supporter of the settler movement; and Jason Greenblatt, a former lawyer who worked for the Trump Organization for the last 20 years.
But the Palestinians refuse to deal with the American team in potential peace talks. They consider it biased and accuse the United States of reneging on its traditional role as mediator by siding with Israel on the embassy issue.