Trump’s pick for am­bas­sador to Is­rael has all sides on edge

Fried­man a fer­vent sup­porter of set­tle­ments

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

NEW YORK: If Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump wanted to show he planned to oblit­er­ate Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ap­proach to Is­rael, he may have found his man to de­liver that mes­sage in David Fried­man, his pick for US am­bas­sador. The bank­ruptcy lawyer and son of an Ortho­dox rabbi is ev­ery­thing Obama is not: A fer­vent sup­porter of Is­raeli set­tle­ments, op­po­nent of Pales­tinian state­hood and un­re­lent­ing de­fender of Is­rael’s gov­ern­ment. So far to the right is Fried­man that even many Is­rael sup­port­ers worry he could push Is­rael’s hawk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu to be more ex­treme, scut­tling prospects for peace with Pales­tini­ans in the process.

The heated debate over Fried­man’s se­lec­tion is play­ing out just as fresh ten­sions erupt be­tween the US and Is­rael, punc­tu­ated last Fri­day by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s stun­ning move to al­low a UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion to pass con­demn­ing Is­raeli set­tle­ments as il­le­gal. The move to ab­stain, rather than veto, de­fied years of US tra­di­tion of shield­ing Is­rael from such res­o­lu­tions, and elicited an­gry con­dem­na­tion from Is­rael, law­mak­ers of both par­ties, and es­pe­cially Trump. “Things will be dif­fer­ent af­ter Jan. 20th,” when he’s sworn in, Trump vowed on Twit­ter.

Fried­man, cer­tainly, is dif­fer­ent. Pres­i­dents of both par­ties have long called for a two-state so­lu­tion that en­vi­sions even­tual Pales­tinian state­hood, and Ne­tanyahu says he agrees. Fried­man does not. He’s called the two-state so­lu­tion a mere “nar­ra­tive” that must end. Un­der Obama, the US has worked closely with J Street, an Is­rael ad­vo­cacy group sharply crit­i­cal of Ne­tanyahu. Not Fried­man. He ac­cuses Obama of “bla­tant anti-Semitism” and calls J Street “worse than ka­pos”, a ref­er­ence to Jews who helped the Nazis im­prison fel­low Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust.

For decades the US has op­posed Is­raeli set­tle­ment-build­ing in lands it seized in the 1967 Mideast War. Fried­man runs a non­profit that raises mil­lions of dol­lars for Beit El, a set­tle­ment of re­li­gious na­tion­al­ists near Ramallah. Beit El runs a right-wing news oulet and a yeshiva whose dean has provoca­tively urged Is­raeli sol­diers to refuse or­ders to up­root set­tlers from their homes.

So it’s un­sur­pris­ing that Fried­man’s nom­i­na­tion has al­ready sharp­ened the bor­ders of a grow­ing balka­niza­tion of Amer­i­can Jews, be­tween those who want the US to push Is­rael to­ward peace and those who be­lieve Obama’s ap­proach aban­doned Amer­ica’s clos­est Mideast ally. It’s a debate play­ing out even at Tem­ple Hil­lel, near the Long Is­landQueens border, where Fried­man’s fa­ther was rabbi for al­most half a cen­tury. “Clearly, David’s opin­ions do not ap­peal to ev­ery­body in the syn­a­gogue, and they ap­peal to others in the syn­a­gogue,” said Ken Fink, the syn­a­gogue’s pres­i­dent and long­time con­gre­gant. “But there’s a huge amount of pride for the home­town boy.”

Thirty-two years be­fore Trump’s elec­tion, Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan donned a yarmulke and noshed on chicken cut­lets and noo­dle pud­ding at Rabbi Mor­ris Fried­man’s home, af­ter a speech at Tem­ple Hil­lel af­firm­ing the sep­a­ra­tion be­tween church and state. Com­ing just two weeks be­fore Rea­gan’s re-elec­tion, the at­tempt to woo Jewish vot­ers struck some as op­por­tunis­tic, and they protested on the streets of the heav­ily Jewish town of North Wood­mere.

Seated at the Sab­bath ta­ble with Rea­gan was David Melech Fried­man - his mid­dle name means “king” in He­brew. The rabbi’s son went on to be­come Trump’s bank­ruptcy lawyer, a vo­cal ad­vo­cate for far-right poli­cies on Is­rael, and now, Trump’s choice for am­bas­sador, de­spite hav­ing no diplo­matic ex­pe­ri­ence. In an­nounc­ing his pick, Trump pointed out that Fried­man’s bar mitz­vah 45 years ago was at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where Fried­man now owns a home. Though his fa­ther was an Ortho­dox rabbi, the syn­a­gogue be­longs to the more mod­er­ate Con­ser­va­tive de­nom­i­na­tion, mak­ing the Fried­mans more ob­ser­vant than many of the con­gre­gants.

Cindy Grosz, who said she’d known Fried­man for nearly 50 years, re­called big par­ties with bois­ter­ous de­bates about Jewish is­sues held in his fam­ily’s sukkah, the out­door hut Jews build dur­ing the har­vest fes­ti­val Sukkot. “He still has the same best friends he’s had for over 30 years. That hasn’t changed,” Grosz said. At his mid­town Man­hat­tan law firm, Fried­man opens up his of­fices to those in mourn­ing who need a minyan - a quo­rum of 10 men in Ortho­dox Ju­daism to say the Mourner’s Kad­dish, a prayer ob­ser­vant Jews say daily for one year af­ter a parent’s death.

And it was a parent’s death, in a way, that brought Fried­man and Trump closer to­gether. Over the years, Fried­man has told friends the story of how the bil­lion­aire real es­tate mogul de­fied an op­pres­sive snow­storm that had kept others away to “sit shiva” for Fried­man’s fa­ther dur­ing the Jewish mourn­ing pe­riod. Ed­u­cated at Columbia Univer­sity and NYU School of Law, Fried­man de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as an ag­gres­sive, high-stakes bank­ruptcy at­tor­ney, rep­re­sent­ing Trump when his At­lantic City casi­nos went through bank­ruptcy.

In the court­room, he’s known as a for­mi­da­ble op­po­nent, said at­tor­ney Tariq Mundiya, Fried­man’s ad­ver­sary in sev­eral cases. He said he’d been aware of Fried­man’s ad­vo­cacy on Is­rael but added, “When you’re in the fog of war with David, the last thing you’re talk­ing about is the Mid­dle East.” If con­firmed, Fried­man is ex­pected to be the face of Trump’s dra­matic shift in pos­ture. While Obama’s re­la­tion­ship with Ne­tanyahu was fa­mously fraught, Fried­man has said Trump will take his cues from Is­rael’s wishes.

Both Fried­man and Trump are par­tic­u­larly fo­cused on mov­ing the US Em­bassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, break­ing with decades of US re­luc­tance to ac­knowl­edge Jerusalem as Is­rael’s cap­i­tal in light of Pales­tini­ans’ claim to east Jerusalem. Enraged by Trump’s pick, left-lean­ing groups and Pales­tinian of­fi­cials have sug­gested his con­fir­ma­tion could spell the end of any se­ri­ous dis­cus­sions about peace. Fried­man and Trump’s tran­si­tion team didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. Ne­tanyahu has stayed pub­licly quiet about Trump’s pick. But in­di­vid­u­als close to the prime min­is­ter said he was pleased with the ap­point­ment be­cause he knows Fried­man has a di­rect line to Trump. The in­di­vid­u­als weren’t au­tho­rized to com­ment by name and re­quested anonymity.

— AP

David Fried­man, US Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s choice for am­bas­sador to Is­rael.

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