WASHINGTON — A Republican-led Senate committee on Thursday narrowly approved the nomination of the combative lawyer selected by President Donald Trump to be ambassador to Israel, brushing aside concerns that David Friedman lacked the temperament for such a critical diplomatic post.
Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted largely along party lines, 12-9, to recommend that the full Senate consider Friedman's nomination. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., sided with the committee's 11 Republicans in favour of Friedman. The committee's other nine Democrats opposed the choice.
Friedman, Trump's former bankruptcy lawyer, tried to use his confirmation hearing a month ago to repair the damage from his past verbal attacks on political opponents. He assured senators that he regretted using inflammatory language and promised to be "respectful and measured" if confirmed.
During that hearing, Friedman acknowledged he deserved criticism for incendiary comments that targeted former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, liberal Jewish advocacy groups and others. Friedman had called one group, J Street, "worse than kapos" — a reference to Jews who helped the Nazis imprison others Jews during the Holocaust. He also accused Obama of "anti-Semitism."
Republicans said Friedman's atonement satisfied them. But Democrats argued the record of divisive statements cannot be erased and will compromise Friedman's effectiveness as Trump's envoy to Israel.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Friedman's contentious history is regrettable because he has such a deep knowledge of Israel and the Middle East. Kaine, echoing the sentiment of other Democrats, said he couldn't support Friedman because of the nominee's "penchant" for over-the-top and even false statements.
"While it is clear that David Friedman is committed to the U.S.-Israel relationship, his history of inflammatory rhetoric is poorly matched for this role," Kaine said.
Dylan Williams, J Street's vice-president for government affairs, said in a statement after the committee's vote that it was "by far the most contested vote on a nominee for U.S. ambassador to Israel ever." The small margin of approval, Williams added, "is a clear signal that he is a completely inappropriate and disastrous choice for such an important position."
The leaders of the largest branch of American Judaism, the liberal Union for Reform Judaism, last month urged senators to reject Friedman, citing his "extreme views" and dearth of professional foreign policy experience. The group, which is the largest association of synagogues in America, said it has never before opposed the nomination of an ambassador to Israel.
Friedman's background and temperament make it more likely he'll "inflame divisions" rather than bridge divides, the group said.
Five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel, who served Democratic and Republican presidents, called Friedman unfit for the post in a February letter to members of the committee.
Menendez, the lone Democrat on the committee to back Friedman, said in a statement that is critical to maintain bipartisan support in Congress for the U.S.-Israel relationship. He added that it's "vitally important we enjoy open channels of communication with our ambassador."
The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Friedman has been a fervent supporter of Israeli settlements and a staunch defender of Israel's government. He also runs a non-profit that raises millions of dollars for Beit El, a settlement of religious nationalists near Ramallah in the West Bank. Beit El runs a right-wing news outlet and a yeshiva whose dean has urged Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to uproot settlers from their homes.
The Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing Israel's more than 120 West Bank settlements, congratulated Friedman on securing the committee's approval.
"Friedman is a true friend of Israel that has a deep understanding of the reality on the ground and he will be a great asset to Israeli-American relations," said Oded Revivi, the council's chief foreign envoy.
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Richard Lardner, The Associated Press