Senate grills US envoy to Israel pick after Trump scraps two-state policy

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President Donald Trump. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next US ambassador to Israel is undergoing a Senate confirmation hearing a day after Trump backed off the long-held US and international position that the key to Mideast peace lies in a two-state solution.

That shift, which Trump revealed Wednesday at a White House news conference alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayahu, is just one reason the confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was immediately contentious, with protestors frequently interrupting to denounce David Friedman, a New York bankruptcy lawyer.

Friedman has backed Israeli settlements, which are seen as illegal under international law and as an impediment to a peace deal by Palestinians. He has opposed the idea of Palestinian statehood, raised millions of dollars for a settlement near the Palestinian city of Ramallah, and referred to a liberal Jewish group as “kapos,” the word for Jews who cooperated with Nazis during the Holocaust.

Lawmakers quizzed the ambassador-designate on his position on statehood in the wake of Trump’s remarks. In answer to a question Wednesday, Trump said that he was “looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like.”

He added that, “I can live with either one. I thought for a while that two-state looked like it might be the easier of the two, but … if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”

Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned Friedman’s dismissal of the two-state solution as a “damaging anachronism” and told him his views “constitute an unprecedented break” from US policy.

Friedman answered that if the Israelis and Palestinians were able to reach an agreement “through direct negotiations along parameters agreeable to them … I would be delighted to see peace come to this region where people have suffered on both sides for so long.”

He continued, “I have expressed my skepticism solely on the basis of my perception of the Palestinians’ failure to renounce terror and accept Israel as a Jewish state.

Friedman went on to mentioned the 1993 Oslo Accords’ requirement that Palestinian leaders end incitement against Israel: “We haven’t made progress since then. In the aftermath of Oslo, terrorism has increased four-fold.”

He made no mention of Israeli actions such as settlement construction, the destruction of Palestinian homes and seizure of Palestinian land in the West Bank as possible obstructions to a peace agreement or drivers of violence.

As Friedman began his opening remarks, a series of protesters stood to denounce him, interrupting him at regular intervals.

“We will not be silent, you do not represent us and you will never represent us,” shouted one young man wearing a kippah, the Jewish head covering.

A young man waving a Palestinian flag shouted that in the West Bank, “Palestinians are there and will always be there.”

Even before Friedman began speaking, his representatives tried to defuse anger about some of the insults he has previously leveled at President Barack Obama and members of Congress.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, introduced Friedman to the panel, saying the “deal-making bankruptcy lawyer” is “very passionate, he has said some things I don’t agree with, but … what’s encouraging to me is he’s said, ‘Maybe I should watch my rhetoric.’ ”

Cardin took a different position, telling Friedman that, “Frankly, the language you have regularly used against those who disagree with your views has me concerned about your preparedness to enter the world of diplomacy.”

Friedman didn’t try to defend himself, telling Cardin that “there is no excuse. If you want me to rationalize or justify it, I can not. I regret” using those words.

New Mexico Senator Tom Udall went after Friedman, however, for his harsh words before being selected for the ambassadorial role.

“He has insulted and denigrated members of the Senate,” Udall said. He quoted Friedman’s comment about senior Democratic New York Sen. Charles Schumer after Democratic colleagues voted to approve the Iran nuclear deal that “Schumer is validating the worst appeasement of terrorism since Munich,” where Palestinian terrorists killed Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games.

Friedman said that of the Anti-Defamation League that “frankly, they sound like morons.” And Udall said that Friedman had “slandered” President Barack Obama when he described “the blatant anti-Semitism emanating from our president and his sycophantic minions.”

Senators will also almost certainly ask Friedman about Trump’s announcement that he would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a highly sensitive issue traditionally left for final status negotiations as both Israelis and Palestinians claim the city as their capital.

That announcement was originally folded into Trump’s statement that the New York lawyer was his pick for ambassador to Israel. The President has since walked it back, saying Wednesday that, “I’d love to see that happen. We’re looking at it very, very strongly. We’re looking at it with great care, great care, believe me, and we’ll see what happens.”

After intervention from Arab allies who stressed to Trump officials the potential for violence and disruption if the US made such a move, US and Israeli officials and Arab diplomats say it’s now more likely that if Friedman is confirmed, he’ll live and work out of an office in Jerusalem but that the full-scale embassy move Trump promised during the presidential campaign will be put off while the Trump administration consults with allies.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer has said the US is in the “beginning stages” of talking to Israel about the issue. Israel has made clear to the US that an embassy move is not their first priority and that combating Iran, the conflict in Syria and improving relations with Arabs are their greatest concerns.