US Senate approves settlement backer as ambassador to Israel
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The US Senate on Thursday approved the appointment of President Donald Trump's former bankruptcy lawyer, a supporter of Israeli settlement building, as Washington's ambassador to Israel.
Trump's nomination of 58-year-old David Friedman, a man with a history of undiplomatic declarations, had raised concerns about America's commitment to a two-state Middle East peace deal.
But Friedman apologized to lawmakers for his past harsh language at a confirmation hearing last month, and the Senate approved him by a margin of 52 to 46.
Two of the chamber's 52 Republicans did not vote and two of the 48 Democrats voted against their camp to approve Friedman.
Trump's administration has been slow to appoint new ambassadors to replace those who stepped down at the end of former president Barack Obama's term, and more than 70 posts lie open.
But the Israel job was seen as a key bellwether of the new administration's attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Friedman's nomination was welcomed by the Israeli right.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Twitter that Friedman "will be warmly welcomed as President Trump's representative and as a close friend of Israel."
(4/4) David Friedman called the two-state solution a “scam.” I cannot in good conscience support his nomination for ambassador to Israel.— Sen Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) March 23, 2017
Before becoming the ambassadorial nominee, Friedman was known as a vocal supporter of Israeli causes, including the building of settlements on Palestinian land in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
He clashed with American Jewish progressive groups, notably dubbing liberals "worse than kapos," a reference to Jewish collaborators who worked as guards in Nazi prison camps.
And he is widely seen as hostile to the two-state solution -- the vision of an end to the conflict in which Israel and a future Palestine live side-by-side within agreed borders.
Trump's administration insists it might support this idea if Israel comes to a deal, but has clearly softened the Obama administration's tough criticism of Israeli settlements.
Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein voted against Friedman and dubbed him "too divisive to serve in one of our nation's most sensitive diplomatic positions."
And liberal Jewish lobby group J Street said it was "heartened" that the level of opposition to Friedman's confirmation showed that his views were outside the US mainstream.
But the Republican Jewish Coalition welcomed the vote, arguing "there is no question that the relationship between the US and Israel will grow stronger."