Trump pick signals sharp shift on Israel

Trump pick signals sharp shift on Israel
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President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE's selection of a pro-Israel hardliner to head the U.S. embassy in that country signals a sharp shift in Washington's approach to its closest ally in the Middle East.

David Friedman, a New York-based bankruptcy attorney with no diplomatic experience, has challenged the so-called two-state solution as an avenue toward peace between the Israelis and Palestinians after decades of violent instability.

He's also pushed to move the U.S. embassy from its current spot in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their spiritual capital.

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Both positions buck longstanding U.S. policies maintained by Republican and Democratic administrations alike; both are also likely to inflame already heightened tensions between Muslims and Jews sharing the region, and beyond.

And while Friedman's nomination has been hailed by some conservatives in both the United States and Israel, Trump's choice has sparked a sharp rebuke from some liberal Democrats –– a dynamic that threatens to erode the rare bipartisanship that U.S.-Israel relations have enjoyed on Capitol Hill for decades.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) a Jewish New Yorker, issued a scathing statement Friday bashing Friedman as a threat to both Middle Eastern security and "the U.S.-Israel relationship going forward."

"Mr. Friedman’s radical hardline positions place him far outside the mainstream of both American and Israeli policy and of American Jewry," Nadler said. "His appointment is not only offensive to both American and Israeli Jews, it again signals the intent of Donald Trump and the Republicans who support him to align with extreme right-wing positions."

Friedman has also come under fire for criticizing liberal Jews by comparing them to "kapos," the term applied to the Jews who assisted Hitler's Nazis during the Holocaust. Friedman has been particularly critical of the advocates at J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that promotes the two-state solution as part of a negotiated peace deal. 

"They are far worse than kapos," he wrote in June. "The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas – it’s hard to imagine anyone worse."

Nadler was not amused, condemning the analogy as "an insult" to most American Jews.

"Using Nazi imagery ... when referring to Jews or Israel today, no matter the circumstance, is broadly deemed to be anti-Semitic and should be condemned in the same way it would be if someone who was not Jewish were to use it," he said.

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyBrindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees Overnight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Bipartisan House members call on Trump to rescind Erdoğan invitation MORE (D-Va.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered a similar review, warning that Friedman's nomination poses "an affront to US policies on settlements and a two-state solution."

"He has called American Jews who disagree with him kapos," Connolly tweeted. "An intolerant bigot of the first order.”

It's unclear how widespread such sentiments are on Capitol Hill. Congress has recessed for the year, and offices are emptying as the December holidays get closer. Still, there was remarkably little lawmaker response to Friedman's nomination this week, especially compared to the countless statements that were issued in reaction to Trump's Cabinet picks. 

Democratic leaders in particular, who had eagerly blasted most of Trump's nominations, seemed to be holding their fire on Friedman –– a silence that highlights the prickly politics surrounding U.S.-Israeli policy.

Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action MORE (N.Y.), a Jewish lawmaker who will lead the Senate Democrats next year, is withholding comment on Friedman "since they haven't spoken," his office said Friday.

Dylan Williams, chief lobbyist at J Street, said that silence is understandable because Friedman has never played an official diplomatic role.

"For the average member of Congress and their staff, he's an unknown," Williams said Friday.

Williams characterized Friedman's policy priorities –– particularly his opposition to the two-state solution –– as a "total and complete departure" from the bipartisan approach to Israeli policy that's practically defined the issue for decades. He predicated more lawmakers will condemn Friedman when they learn more about him.

That bipartisanship has suffered cracks in recent years, particularly in 2015 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, invited by then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFrom learning on his feet to policy director Is Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush MORE (R-Ohio), addressed a rare joint session of Congress in order to hammer the Obama administration for pushing its nuclear deal with Iran.

That episode was significant, Williams acknowledged, but the nomination of Friedman is "potentially a significant leap" toward even greater partisan divisions. He noted that the Republicans this year excluded the two-state solution language in the GOP's official campaign platform.

"Friedman and others like him … are yanking the Republican Party away from this bipartisan consensus," Williams said. 

Announcing the nomination on Thursday, Trump touted Friedman's familiarity with Israeli history and the Hebrew language, and vowed there would be "no daylight" between the two countries while he's in the White House.

"His strong relationships in Israel will form the foundation of his diplomatic mission and be a tremendous asset to our country as we strengthen the ties with our allies and strive for peace in the Middle East," Trump said.

Friedman, for his part, said he's "humbled" by the offer and vowed "to work tirelessly to strengthen the unbreakable bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region."

He emphasized that it's work he intends to do "from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

Jason Miller, a Trump spokesman, said Friday that the president-elect "remains firmly committed" to keeping his campaign promise to move the American embassy. But it's "premature," he told reporters, to announce when the switch to Jerusalem will happen.