David Friedman, the combative bankruptcy lawyer President Donald Trump tapped as his envoy to Israel, said Thursday he regretted using "inflammatory rhetoric" during the divisive 2016 presidential campaign, but didn't specify which remarks he apologized for.
Friedman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing that language he used "has come in for criticism — and rightfully so." But he said his use of incendiary and hurtful comments is "entirely over" and that he recognized the discretion the post requires even when he has profound differences with his critics.
"I regret the use of such language and I want to assure you that I understand the important difference between a political contest and a diplomatic mission," Friedman said. "Partisan rhetoric is rarely if ever appropriate in achieving diplomatic progress, especially in a sensitive and strife-torn region like the Middle East."
But Friedman's apology didn't convince the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. "I am having difficulty with the language you have used," he said.
Friedman had called J Street, a liberal Jewish advocacy group, "worse than kapos," a reference to Jews who helped the Nazis imprison fellow Jews during the Holocaust.
J Street worked closely with the Obama administration and is critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The group says Friedman "lacks the temperament and responsibility required for such a sensitive diplomatic assignment."
Five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel who are opposing Friedman's nomination said he accused President Barack Obama and the entire State Department of anti-Semitism. The ambassadors, who served Republican and Democratic presidents, said Friedman is unqualified for the post and have urged the committee to carefully consider his nomination.
Friedman told the committee he's skeptical a two-state solution can succeed because Palestinians haven't renounced terrorism and have refused to accept Israel as a Jewish state. But he said he would be "delighted" if it were possible to establish an independent Palestinian state.
His remarks come a day after Trump and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to endorse the two-state solution as the preferred outcome of peace talks. Their remarks at the White House effectively abandoned what has been the foundation of U.S.-led peace efforts since 2002. The Palestinians and the international community have long favoured the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Prior to the hearing, Friedman had called the two-state strategy a "narrative" and an "illusory solution in search of a nonexistent problem."
He said it's not his role to make policy, but he recommended creating a Palestinian middle class in the Gaza Strip that is empowered with economic opportunities. He said most Palestinians are "being held hostage by a ruthless regime," a reference to the Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized power there in 2007.
Protesters interrupted Friedman during his opening remarks. Two men, minutes apart, stood and shouted pro-Palestinian slogans. They each held up Palestinian flags before being removed by the Capitol police.
Other protesters sang before being ushered out. One blasted a "shofar," an instrument made of a ram's horn used by Jews during the High Holidays. He prefaced it with the traditional chant "tekiah" that precedes the blowing of the shofar.
A woman shouted, "Do not confirm David Friedman. He is a war criminal!"