For liberal Jewish groups, David Friedman represents more than just a hawkish candidate for America’s top diplomatic position in Israel. The combination of his longstanding rejection of a two-state solution and his nasty attacks on the American Jewish left, have made Friedman the embodiment of all liberal Jewish fears over the election of Donald Trump.
And guess what? Friedman, a former Trump bankruptcy lawyer with no diplomatic experience, just won a 12-9 vote in the Senate foreign relations committee and is sailing to likely approval by the full Republican-controlled Senate in coming days.
So why does the liberal J Street lobby see the Friedman nomination fight as a big victory?
The nasty fight over Friedman’s hardline views (which he tried to soften a bit) have driven Democrats more and more into the camp of the dovish group. It’s a trend that was clear during Thursday’s brief debate and vote over Friedman’s approval at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Liberal Jews were not surprised to hear Tim Kaine, a longtime ally of J Street, or New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall, who was endorsed by J Street’s PAC, speak out against Friedman and vote against his approval.
But Maryland’s Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, signified the sea change that has taken hold in the Trump era.
Cardin, as mainstream as they come on Israel, was among the few Democrats who opposed President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, despite tireless efforts by J Street and other pro-deal lobbying groups to win his support for the agreement. But now, with Friedman’s nomination on the table, J Street has found an opening to moderate Democrats like Cardin, taking the dovish lobby one step closer to serving as the pro-Israel home of all Democrats, not only members of the party’s progressive wing.
“The level of opposition faced by David Friedman today in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote was unprecedented,” said J Street’s vice president of government affairs Dylan Williams in a statement, noting that the 12:9 vote was the most contested ever on the nomination of an ambassador to Israel. “It shows that the committee heard loud and clear the objections and concerns of diplomatic experts, pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans and the American Jewish community.”
For J Street, this could mean finding its footing as a leading opposition voice during the Trump presidency. It could also perhaps chip away at the almost automatic support many elected Democratic officials have for the positions held by the Israeli government and by the main pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.
J Street may have been the most vocal and effective group in this battle, making Friedman’s nomination the highlight of its recent annual conference, but it was not alone. Groups to its left, including Jewish Voice for Peace, also lobbied against Friedman, as did the Quaker group Friends Committee on National Legislation. The group’s Middle East policy representative Kate Gould said Thursday that “securing nine votes against Mr. Friedman’s confirmation is the strongest signal of congressional opposition to date to the Trump Administration’s threat to upend a half century of bipartisan U.S. opposition to illegal Israeli settlements.”
Of course, it may be too early to celebrate.
The battle over Friedman’s nomination found J Street facing second tier opponents. AIPAC, stating a policy of not intervening in presidential nominations, stayed out of the debate, leaving groups with less presence on the Hill, such as the Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition to lead the charge in favor of Friedman.
It was also an unusual confluence, in which even Democrats who could somehow live with Friedman’s positions on settlements and on a two state solution, found it hard to overlook his attacks on fellow Jewish activists.
Spoiling the perfect picture for liberal organizations was New Jersey Democrat Bob Melendez who stood alone in the committee in supporting Friedman’s nomination. Menendez, who during the confirmation hearing grilled Friedman about his loyalty to the United States and Israel, ended up breaking with party line and voting for the approval.
In the symbolic realm of counting votes on a loosing bid, liberals are now looking to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has yet to indicate how he will vote when Friedman’s nominations comes to the Senate floor. Convincing Schumer to vote against or abstain, could be the liberals’ biggest achievement, one that would send a signal that Democrats from left to center are open to re-examine long held views on the politics of being pro-Israel.
So don’t be surprised to see J Street crowing again if Friedman fails to win more than one or two Democratic votes in the Senate. Even though he will be going to the Middle East as Donald Trump’s main man anyway.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.