Portman Questions Ambassador to Israel Nominee, Secures Commitment on Countering BDS Movement

February 16, 2017 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) questioned David Friedman – President Trump’s nominee to be Ambassador to Israel – on his planned approach to confronting Israel’s most pressing problems, his qualifications for the job, and his commitment to countering the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement’s economic warfare against Israel. Friedman confirmed to Portman that he would be a “fierce advocate against the BDS movement.” Portman has a long record of supporting Israel, including introducing a bill to counter the BDS movement just last month.

Transcript of the interview can be found below and a video can be found here.

Portman: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I appreciate the opportunity to hear you respond to some of those allegations. You used the word reject and I think you regret perhaps also some of those comments it sounds like, not to put words in your mouth.”

Friedman: “I do, I do Senator.”

Portman: “That’s what I sense from today including your prepared remarks. You could have no better advocate than Joe Lieberman and he does have enormous respect on both sides of the aisle and he knows you as a friend and as a colleague, so you were smart to have brought him with you today.”

Friedman: “Thank you.”

Portman: “Graham I won’t talk about. Just kidding, he’s fine too. But I do have concerns. You know this is not a typical ambassadorship. I mean having been to Israel a number of times. I’ve met with our ambassador there. Let’s be frank, in a lot of countries of the world, it doesn’t matter that much who the ambassador is. The State Department has taken a bigger and bigger role over the last several decades over foreign policy and even the White House plays a big role in certain countries but this is an important one. That person on the ground, developing those relationships I think is critical for two reasons. One, we do have a lot of diverse points of view here, as you can see, we all are very supportive of Israel, I think is fair to say. I hope that is true. But there are different approaches to the policy issues. So an ambassador has to be able to bring all of these points of view together and provide counsel to our President and to our Secretary of State and others, including the National Security Advisor. You will get a lot of visitors, assuming you are confirmed by this body, from congress but also from around the world. So, it is a very important role in terms of taking all of these points of view. So one of my questions for you is, do you think you are capable of doing that? Listening to all points of view and being in some respects a broker of those points of view to describe to our administration as to the best approach forward?

Friedman: “Senator thank you, and yes I do think I can do that. I think that bipartisanship has always been the hallmark of America’s support for Israel and as I have commented occasionally to several of the senators I have had the privilege to meet, I want to do everything I can to work with the members of Congress to build upon what is, I think, much more that unites us then divides us on the state of Israel. There are obviously divergent views and I think all of those views need to be considered and I think they are all made in good faith and if I am confirmed it will be a high priority of mine to synthesize and to the extent harmonize the views of the Congress and also to do the same in Israel because as divided as the United States is, the state of Israel is just as divided and their governing system is very challenging.”

Portman: “Mr. Friedman, let me continue, the second role that I was going to mention is the one that you are suggesting now, which is my sense is that the Ambassador to Israel typically has been someone who has a personal relationship with the leadership there, and not just the Prime Minister but also members of the cabinet and members of the opposition parties, because as you say it is pretty diverse and sometimes chaotic in their parliament, but you have to have those relationships. So, my question to you is do you think you can be effective there? And specifically, how would you go about representing the United States of America? Would you be interested in more public comments, some ambassadors have taken that route, or would this be more private conversations? And do you feel as though you have relationships in the country beyond the coalition government and beyond the existing parties that are in power to be able to perform that role?”

Friedman: “Senator, on the issue of public comments or private, I happen to believe that, with regard to the State of Israel, discretion is incredibly important and I think public comments can be self-defeating. As you saw yesterday, people hang on every word that is issued on the subject, whether or not the speaker intended that or not. I think you have to be careful. I think that if there is progress to be made in the Middle East and the peace process, it’s through private diplomacy, it’s through forging agreements, coalitions and common interests behind the scenes and I think that’s important. I do understand well the center, the left and the right of the Israel Knesset. They are all good people. Many of them have sacrificed; I think they have all sacrificed for their country. Many of them have paid the ultimate sacrifice through the loss of loved ones for their country.  People on the left who have lost their families continue to maintain positions on the left and they are entitled to do so and they should do so. So, it is hard to bring that together but ultimately this is a Rubik’s cube and there are a lot of pieces that have to come together. I do think I know the issues, I know the players and I do think I have worked, albeit a much less complicated capacity, but I have worked to develop a skill set that will be complimentary to that task.”

Portman: “In your law practice?”

Friedman: “Yes”

Portman: “One specific issue that I want to raise is BDSBoycott, Divestment, Sanctions. I think the ambassador to Israel will have to be someone who is a spokesperson for the U.S. point of view on this and will have the ability, I hope, to be able to communicate to the rest of the world what it means, for instance, to have sanctions or boycotts with regard to the West Bank. What will that mean in terms of Israel? In terms of the Palestinians? Golan Heights, the other issue as you know, has become part of BDS in some form. What are your views in terms of BDS? Ben Cardin and I got legislation passed. We are looking at additional legislation. The Congress is on record now on this issue, and we want to do more. But just talk to us HOW as an Ambassador to Israel you can be an effective communicator on the BDS issue and pushing back, combating what I think is a global effort that needs strong support from the United States to combat it.” 

Friedman: “I will be a fierce advocate against the BDS movement. As I understand, Ambassador Haley has committed to do so as well. I look at the example of Soda Stream, I don’t know if you are familiar with that company, but Soda Stream was an extraordinary successful company that employed hundreds of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis and paid them all the same wages and gave them all the same benefits, and it was a paradigm of Israelis and Palestinians working together. And because Soda Stream happened to be on the wrong side of the green line, they were boycotted throughout the world and had to move, and they moved to [the Israeli side], and the Palestinians lost their job. This is an entirely self-defeating prospect, not only for Israel, but for the Palestinians as well."

Portman: “My time has expired, thank you Mr. Chairman.”