Donald Trump picks settlements supporter as U.S. ambassador to Israel

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has announced that he will nominate attorney David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel, selecting an envoy who supports Israeli settlements and other changes to U.S. policies in the region.

Friedman said he looked forward to carrying out his duties from “the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem,” even though the embassy is in Tel Aviv.

Like some of his predecessors, Trump has vowed to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, a politically charged act that would anger Palestinians who want east Jerusalem as part of their sovereign territory. The move would also distance the U.S. from most of the international community, including its closest allies in Western Europe and the Arab world.

The president-elect said Friedman would “maintain the special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeated Canada’s longstanding position, to push for a two-state solution directly negotiated by the Israeli and Palestinian people to foster peace, stability and economic opportunity in the region.

“Unilateral actions, whether it be settlements on the one side or unilateral declarations at the UN on the other side, are unhelpful,” he said. “And I hope that the new administration in the United States understands that creating a successful two-state solution means respecting and encouraging positive actions that bring people together.”

Trudeau declined to speculate on the potential fallout from Trump’s pledge to move the embassy, noting that many things are said during a campaign or transition and that he would not comment on hypotheticals.

Trump pick sparks anger

But the announcement sparked anger from liberal Jewish groups. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, called nominating Friedman “reckless,” citing his support for settlements and his questioning of a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Israel Trump

David Friedman, president-elect Donald Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel. ( Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP via AP)

The statement doesn’t detail how Friedman could work in Jerusalem. However, Trump advisers have insisted in recent days that the president-elect will follow through on moving the embassy.

“He has made that promise,” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters Thursday. “I can guarantee you, just generally, he’s a man who is going to accomplish many things very quickly.”

One option Trump allies have discussed would involve Friedman, if confirmed by the Senate, working out of an existing U.S. consulate in Jerusalem. According to a person who has discussed the plan with Trump advisers, the administration would essentially deem the facility the American Embassy by virtue of the ambassador working there.

It’s unclear how far those discussions have gotten or whether Trump himself has been briefed on the proposal. Trump’s transition team did not respond to questions about the matter.

Clinton, Clark made same pledge

Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but backed away from the idea once in office.

Virtually all embassies to Israel are located in or around Tel Aviv.

Former prime minister Joe Clark plunged Canada into a diplomatic crisis in 1979 when he planned to move Canada’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, fulfilling a promise he made during the election. 

The move was applauded by the Israeli press, but condemned by many Arab nations, which threatened economic sanctions and boycotts.

Caught in a no-win situation, Clark appointed his former boss, Robert Stanfield, to examine the issue. He ultimately suggested the embassy move be abandoned, and Clark followed that advice.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it in a move that is not internationally recognized. It claims the entire city as its capital. The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem, home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, as the capital of their future state.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told The Associated Press this week that he has been in touch with Trump’s staff about the embassy issue. Barkat said his conversations have led him to believe that Trump is serious about making the move.

Meanwhile, a top Jewish settler leader said having Friedman in the post will provide settlers with “a welcome ear to hear what we want to say and a direct line to the American president.”

Obstacle to peace?

Friedman has previously suggested that Trump would support Israel annexing parts of the West Bank, anathema to longstanding American policy. Friedman has also served as president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, which provides support for that settlement.

Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, said Friedman has a “deep love for all of the land and people of Israel, including those in Judea and Samaria” — using the West Bank’s biblical names — and would offer a welcome change to decades of American envoys who viewed the settlements as an obstacle to peace.

Revivi noted that Beit El is a small settlement on the outside of the major blocs in the Israeli consensus, and said Friedman’s support for it was indicative of his overall support for the settler enterprise.

American ambassadors to Israel have traditionally avoided even visiting settlements.

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