The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) voted 12 to 9 to approve President Donald Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. While Friedman is likely to be confirmed by the full Senate as early as this week, the near party line split in committee and the pledges to oppose his nomination are signs of the growing willingness of Members of Congress to listen to the growing opposition among their base to Israel’s ongoing settlement construction and denial of Palestinian rights.
Progressive advocacy groups across the full political range of the anti-occupation camp have been vocal in opposition to Friedman’s nomination. JStreet, which bills itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace led a coalition of liberal Zionist groups in gathering 40,000 signatures and making calls to senators. Palestinian rights advocates such as Jewish Voice for Peace, US Campaign, and Code Pink, also gathered a combined 40,000 petition signatures opposing Friedman. The moderate Union for Reform Judaism came out against a nominee for ambassador to Israel for the first time ever. As Friends Committee on National Legislation advocate Kate Gould writes, “the narrow margin of the vote reflects the growing grassroots mobilization to the pro-settlement, pro-occupation policies that Mr. Friedman has promoted.” This opposition has been unprecedented for an ambassadorial appointment, especially one to Israel.
And for good reason. It would have been hard for Trump to find someone with more extreme positions. Friedman’s record demonstrates that his positions are to the right of even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Friedman is a longtime supporter and fundraiser for one of the most extreme and violent ideological settlements in the West Bank, has denigrated liberal Jews who oppose Israel’s nearly 50 year military occupation by comparing them to Nazi collaborators, and has supported the idea of annexing the West Bank (without giving Palestinian inhabitants full equal rights).
Friedman is not the only Israel adviser in Trump’s circle with ties to the settlements. Another former Trump lawyer and now senior adviser, Jason Greenblatt, travels to Israel this week to discuss settlement expansion. By his own admission, the only time Greenblatt has interacted with Palestinians was as an armed guard when he was studying at a yeshiva in a West Bank settlement back in 1989. Greenblatt is expected to discuss settlements with Israeli officials, in an effort to come to some agreement that will likely allow continued construction with some minimal restrictions.
The Trump administration has confused many observers with statements on settlement policy that appear to swing back and forth between complete encouragement and a veneer of restraint. Since Trump’s inauguration the Israeli government has sped ahead with settlement construction, announcing the first ever new settlement, and the construction of thousands of new units. The calls for annexing the West Bank in the Israeli Knesset are growing louder. But when Netanyahu visited the US in February, Trump asked him to “slow down,” a gentle chastisement accompanied by a wink. One explanation for the seeming incongruity between the support for settlements indicated by Trump’s choice of Israel advisers and a few recent statements calling for moderation requires an understanding of Israel’s domestic politics. At home, Netanyahu is under strong pressure from the right wing of his governing coalition and needs restraint from the U.S. as a foil to maintain power.
In a statement published just a few days before the election, Friedman and Greenblatt laid out their policy positions. They reject the fact that Israel is an occupying power and oppose a Palestinian state. They support the incendiary move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. And they encourage aid to Israel above the $3.8 billion dollars per year already allocated by the new memorandum of understanding signed by during the Obama administration.
Recent polls demonstrate a strong and growing opposition to these positions, particularly within key constituencies in the Democratic Party. A January 2017 Pew Survey found that the partisan divide in support for Israel is the widest it’s been since 1978, and, for the first time, Democrats are now about equally split between sympathizing more with Israel (33 percent) and with Palestinians (31 percent). A December 2016 Brookings Institution poll found that 60% of Democrats now support imposing economic sanctions or more serious action against the settlements. It’s been clear for a while that the Democratic Party base opposes Israel’s occupation and wants to see a peace settlement that fulfills the needs of both peoples, but Democratic Party leaders and elected officials have been slow to catch up. The fight over the Israel plank of the party platform was one illustration of this divide within the party between those willing to speak out for full equal rights for Palestinians and those in the party who are still holding on to pro-Israel orthodoxies.
The fight over David Friedman’s nomination has been an opportunity to test the parameters of that divide and the willingness of Democratic leaders to speak out under significant pressure from the grassroots. Senator Ben Cardin’s (D-MD) vote against Friedman is a significant turning point. Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the committee has close ties to the Israel advocates and a hawkish record on support for Israel, including sponsoring a recent bill opposing the UN condemnation of Israel’s illegal settlements. In the days before Cardin announced he would vote no on Friedman’s nomination, citing the partisan divide with concern, his office received over 300 phone calls from Jewish Voice for Peace members urging him to vote no.
When the Friedman nomination goes to a full Senate vote, he will likely face opposition from at least the nine senators who voted against him in committee, as well as from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) who have already expressed their intention to oppose him and several others who have expressed concern over Friedman, including Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The only Democrat on the SFRC who voted for Friedman was Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who has close ties to AIPAC. One vote to watch will be Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) who has been under significant pressure, including a letter from 120 Jewish academics urging him to vote no.
The significant opposition to David Friedman’s nomination from a broad spectrum of civil society, current and former officials, editorial boards, and liberal Jewish institutions is an encouraging sign that the American public is increasingly ready to stand up against permissive U.S. policy that allows Israel to continue its settlement construction and violations of Palestinian rights with impunity. The Senate vote to confirm Friedman will be a gauge of how willing elected officials are to do the same.