US ambassador David Friedman arrives in Israel

Bankruptcy lawyer, who is sceptical of a two-state solution, takes up post, just days before Trump’s visit to Israel.

New US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman presents credentials
Friedman has supported moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem [EPA]

David Friedman, the controversial new US ambassador to Israel, has arrived in the country to take up his post, just days before a visit by US President Donald Trump.

Friedman, who presented his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday, has been a strong supporter of Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

After his arrival in Tel Aviv on Monday, Friedman visited the Western Wall in occupied East Jerusalem, praying there and kissing the sacred site.

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“I prayed for the president and I wished him success, especially on his upcoming trip,” Friedman said in a video posted on the US embassy’s Twitter feed.

“I know it’s going to be an amazing trip.”

A Jewish-American bankruptcy lawyer, Friedman has expressed scepticism over the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the basis of years of US diplomatic efforts.

He has also advocated breaking with decades of precedent by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the divided city of Jerusalem, a prospect deeply alarming to Palestinians who see the occupied eastern half of the city as their future capital. 

Trump pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem during his campaign but has since backed away, saying the move was still being looked at.

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He will have to decide by the beginning of June whether to continue with the policy of his predecessors and again block the embassy’s transfer.

Trump is expected to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories on May 22 and 23.

Western Wall

Israeli officials reacted angrily to recent reports in local news media that representatives of the US consulate had suggested the Western Wall in occupied East Jerusalem did not belong to Israel.

“The statement that the Western Wall is part of the West Bank was received with shock,” an official in Netanyahu’s office said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Israel is convinced that this statement contradicts President Trump’s policies … Israel has reached out to the United States on this matter.”

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Trump is reportedly planning to visit the Western Wall in occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City during his visit.

Israel’s Channel Two reported that Israeli officials offering to help plan the event were told by American counterparts it was not their remit.

One US official said the Western Wall was part of the West Bank, Channel Two reported.

The White House distanced itself from the alleged comments, saying in statements to US media that they did not reflect the views of the administration.

‘Worse than kapos’

Speaking at a pre-election rally in October in support of Trump on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, Friedman said Trump would fire US state department “lifers” who refused to move the embassy.

He has also clashed with American Jewish progressive groups, notably dubbing liberals “worse than kapos”, a reference to Jewish collaborators who worked as guards in Nazi concentration camps.

His appointment comes as Trump seeks ways to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and questions have been raised over whether Friedman will be able to put his personal views aside.

Trump himself has sent mixed signals over how he will approach the decades-old conflict.

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He cast uncertainty over years of international efforts to foster a two-state solution when he met Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, at the White House in February.

At that meeting, he said he would support a single state if it led to peace, delighting Israeli right-wingers who want to see their country annex most of the occupied West Bank.

At the same time, he urged Israel to hold back on settlement building in the West Bank, a long-standing concern of Palestinians and much of the world.

He also held face-to-face talks in Washington, DC with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this month, confidently predicting that a peace agreement was within grasp and brushing aside the complexities of a conflict that has bedevilled successive US leaders.

Settlement support

“We will get it done,” Trump said, flaunting what he has described as his deal-making prowess.

“It is something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”

Friedman’s support for settlements has drawn particular attention.

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Trump, the parents of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Friedman have all reportedly contributed financially to the Beit El settlement, near the Palestinian political capital Ramallah.

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Friedman has been president of a group called American Friends of Beit El Institutions.

It said the group raises about $2m a year for Beit El.

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Israeli settlements are viewed as illegal under international law and major stumbling blocks to peace as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967 in moves never recognised by the international community.

It later annexed East Jerusalem and claims the entire city as its undivided capital.

The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, said on Sunday that Trump was still assessing whether relocating the embassy would help or harm chances for peace.

Netanyahu responded by saying on Monday that “not only would moving the embassy not harm the peace process, but to the contrary.

“It would advance it by fixing a historic wrong and shatter the Palestinian illusion that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel”.

Source: News Agencies