Trump nominee for Israel ambassador heckled, questioned at Senate

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 before he apologized for his stinging criticism of liberal American Jews and promised to be less inflammatory in an official capacity. 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 repeatedly expressed regret for 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." Trump is following through on a promised shift in U.S. policy toward Israel after years of friction between former President Barack Obama and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Flanked by Netanyahu at a White House news conference, Trump on Wednesday dropped a U.S. commitment to a two-state solution, long a bedrock of its 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!" Democratic senators pressed Friedman on incendiary comments he made including calling 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 the Jewish state, which has included financial support of Jewish settlements built on land claimed by Palestinians. He promised to avoid inflammatory comments as a U.S. diplomat. 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, citing Friedman's criticism of Schumer as having done the "worst appeasement of terrorists since Munich," 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. 'RECANT EVERY SINGLE STRONGLY HELD BELIEF' Under questioning, Friedman tried to soften his positions on a number of hot-button regional issues. While expressing skepticism of a two-state solution calling for the creation of Palestinian state next to Israel, he acknowledged it was the best option for peace. He said he did not personally support Israeli annexation of the West Bank and agreed with Trump's view that settlement activity "may not be helpful" to achieving peace. "You're here today having to recant every single strongly held belief that you've expressed, almost," the committee's Republican chairman, Bob Corker, noted. Friedman is likely to be confirmed by the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham 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. "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. 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. (Reporting by Doina Chiacu; editing by Frances Kerry and Cynthia Osterman)