The combative attorney President Donald Trump picked as his ambassador to Israel sought to repair the damage from past attacks on political opponents, telling Congress he deeply regretted using inflammatory language and promised to be "respectful and measured" should he be confirmed.
During his confirmation hearing Thursday, David Friedman said 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 fellow Jews during the Holocaust.
"Apology is the first step to atonement," Friedman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I have profound differences of opinion with J Street. My regret is that I did not express my views respectfully."
The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Friedman has been a fervent supporter of Israeli settlements, an opponent of Palestinian statehood and staunch defender of Israel's government.
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The hearing played out along familiar party lines. Republicans largely sought to play to the Trump nominee's strengths, while Democrats aimed for weak spots. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., vigorously defended Friedman and rejected the notion that he needed to distance himself from passionately held beliefs. Rubio argued the U.S. should be unashamedly pro-Israel, noting that the Jewish state is America's staunchest ally in the volatile Middle East.
But Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., delivered a blistering assessment of Friedman's record, which the senator said is full of insulting comments and extreme views. Friedman labels anyone who disagrees with him, including the entire Obama State Department, as anti-Semitic, Udall said.
Udall referenced a letter from five former American ambassadors to Israel who called Friedman unfit for the post. The former envoys, who served Republican and Democratic presidents, cited examples of Friedman's "extreme, radical positions," such as believing it would not be illegal for Israel to annex the occupied West Bank.
During the hearing, Friedman assured members he would not campaign for such an annexation. He also cautioned against the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. "It makes sense to tread very carefully there," Friedman said, echoing words used by Trump.
The letter opposing Friedman's nomination was signed by Thomas Pickering, William Harrop, Edward Walker, Daniel Kurtzer and James Cunningham.
Friedman said he "absolutely" supports a two-state solution, but said he's skeptical such an approach can succeed because Palestinians haven't renounced terrorism and have refused to accept Israel as a Jewish state. But he said he would be "delighted" if it were possible to reach a two-state agreement.
Friedman appeared before the committee a day after Trump and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to endorse the two-state solution as the preferred outcome of Middle East peace talks. Their remarks at the White House effectively abandoned what has been the foundation of U.S.-led peace efforts since 2002. The Palestinians and the international community have long favored the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
But Trump declared he also could endorse a one-nation solution to the long and deep dispute between Palestinians and Israel.
Prior to the hearing, Friedman had called the two-state strategy a "narrative" and an "illusory solution in search of a nonexistent problem." But the alternatives appear to offer dimmer prospects for peace, given Palestinian demands for statehood. Dozens of countries, including the U.S., reaffirmed their support for a two-state accord at an international conference in Paris last month, just before Trump's inauguration.
During an exchange with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Friedman acknowledged the difficulty, if not impossibility, of a single-state approach. Just as Israel wouldn't accept a two-state solution that didn't recognize Israel's right to exist, Kaine said, the Palestinians shouldn't be expected to agree to a resolution that undercut their legal rights and relegated them to second-class status.
"I think so," Friedman said.
Friedman said it's not his role to make policy, but he recommended efforts to create a Palestinian middle class in the Gaza Strip that is empowered with economic opportunities. He said most Palestinians are "being held hostage by a ruthless regime," a reference to the Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized power there in 2007.
Protesters interrupted Friedman during his opening remarks. Two men, minutes apart, stood and shouted pro-Palestinian slogans. They each held up Palestinian flags before being removed by the Capitol police.
Other protesters sang before being ushered out. One blasted a "shofar," an instrument made of a ram's horn used by Jews during the High Holidays. He prefaced it with the traditional chant "tekiah" that precedes the blowing of the shofar.
A woman shouted, "Do not confirm David Friedman. He is a war criminal!"