David Friedman testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Israel, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas(reuters_tickers)
By Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Israel faced repeated heckling at a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday as well as tough questions on his criticism of liberal American Jews and prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer Trump has called a longtime friend and trusted adviser, has supported Jewish settlement building and advocated the annexation of the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.
His nomination has been fiercely opposed by some American Jewish groups.
Friedman several times expressed regret over derogatory comments he made likening liberal American Jews to Jewish prisoners who worked for the Nazis during the Holocaust, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in his opening statement, "I regret the use of such language."
A shift in U.S. policy towards Israel has already begun. With visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, Trump on Wednesday dropped a U.S. commitment to a two-state solution, long a bedrock of Washington's Middle East policy, even as he urged Netanyahu to curb settlement construction.
The heated opposition to Friedman's nomination erupted in the hearing room as Friedman began his opening statement, with several hecklers including a man who held up the Palestinian flag and shouted about Palestinian claims to the land of Israel.
"My grandfather was exiled," the man said before being escorted out of the room. "Palestinians will always be in Palestine!"
Some Democratic senators pressed Friedman on inflammatory comments he has made including calling former President Barack Obama an anti-Semite and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish, an appeaser.
"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," Ben Cardin, the senior Democrat on the committee, told the nominee.
Friedman acknowledged using overheated rhetoric as part of his passionate support for Israel, which has included financial backing for Jewish settlements built on land claimed by Palestinians.
However, he told Cardin, "There is no excuse. If you want me to rationalize it or justify it, I cannot. These were hurtful words and I deeply regret them."
Cardin cited Friedman's criticism of Schumer as having done the "worst appeasement of terrorists since Munich" and retorted that those words were "beyond hurtful."
"We need a steady hand in the Middle East not a bomb thrower," admonished Tom Udall, another Democrat.
'RIGHT GUY, RIGHT TIME'
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, acknowledged that Friedman has said things he did not agree with but backed the nominee as qualified, experienced and passionate.
"I believe he is the right guy at the right time. He'll be Trump's voice. Trump won the election," Graham said.
Five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel from both Republican and Democratic administrations urged the Senate in a letter to reject Friedman, saying that he holds "extreme, radical positions" on issues such as Jewish settlements and the two-state solution for peace in the region.
"We believe him to be unqualified for the position," wrote the former ambassadors including Thomas Pickering, Edward Walker, Daniel Kurtzer, James Cunningham and William Harrop.
Friedman is likely to be confirmed by the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.
While campaigning for the presidency, Trump pledged to switch the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, where it has been located for 68 years, to Jerusalem, all but enshrining the city as Israel's capital regardless of international objections.
On Wednesday, Trump said he would accept either a two-state solution or a one-state solution. Friedman, who has expressed scepticism of a two-state solution, told the committee he backed Trump's stance.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry and Cynthia Osterman)