Controversial new US ambassador arrives in Israel

AFP , Monday 15 May 2017

David Friedman
David Friedman, new United States Ambassador to Israel, kisses the Western Wall after arriving in the country on Monday and immediately paying a visit to the main Jewish holy site, in Jerusalem's Old City May 15, 2017 (REUTERS)

Controversial new US ambassador to Israel David Friedman arrived in the country on Monday to take up his post, days ahead of a visit by US President Donald Trump.

Friedman, due to present his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday, has been a strong supporter of Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

After his arrival in Tel Aviv, Friedman visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, praying there and kissing the sacred site, the holiest location where Jews are allowed to pray.

"I prayed for the president and I wished him success, especially on his upcoming trip," Friedman said in a video posted on the US embassy's Twitter feed.

"I know it's going to be an amazing trip," he said.

Friedman, a frequent visitor to Jerusalem, also exchanged words near the wall with Steven Tyler of American rock band Aerosmith, in town for a concert.

Jewish-American bankruptcy lawyer Friedman has expressed scepticism over the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the basis of years of US peace efforts.

He has also advocated breaking with decades of precedent by moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem, a prospect deeply alarming to Palestinians.

Trump vowed to move the embassy to Jerusalem during his campaign, but has since backed away, saying the move was still being looked at.

He will have to decide by the beginning of June whether to continue with the policy of his predecessors and again block the embassy's transfer.

Trump is expected to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories on May 22 and 23.

Speaking at a pre-election rally in October in support of Trump on Jerusalem's Mount Zion, Friedman said the now US president would fire US State Department "lifers" who refused to move the embassy.

He has also clashed with American Jewish progressive groups, notably dubbing liberals "worse than kapos", a reference to Jewish collaborators who worked as guards in Nazi concentration camps.

His appointment comes as Trump seeks ways to restart moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and questions have been raised over whether Friedman will be able to put his personal views aside.

Trump himself has sent mixed signals over how he will approach the decades-old conflict.

He cast uncertainty over years of international efforts to foster a two-state solution when he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in February.

At that meeting, he said he would support a single state if it led to peace, delighting Israeli right-wingers who want to see their country annex most of the occupied West Bank.

At the same time, he urged Israel to hold back on settlement building in the West Bank, a longstanding concern of Palestinians and much of the world.

He also held face-to-face talks in Washington with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas earlier this month, confidently predicting that a peace agreement was within grasp, brushing aside the complexities of a conflict that has bedevilled successive US leaders.

"We will get it done," Trump said, flaunting what he has described as his deal-making prowess.

"It is something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years."

Friedman's support for settlements has drawn particular attention.

Trump, the parents of his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Friedman have all reportedly contributed financially to Beit El settlement, near the Palestinian political capital Ramallah.

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Friedman has been president of a group called American Friends of Beit El Institutions.

It said the group raises about $2 million a year for Beit El.

Israeli settlements are viewed as illegal under international law and major stumbling blocks to peace as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967 in moves never recognised by the international community.

It later annexed east Jerusalem and claims the entire city as its undivided capital. The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that Trump was still assessing whether relocating the embassy would help or harm chances for peace.

Netanyahu responded by saying on Monday that "not only would moving the embassy not harm the peace process, but to the contrary.

"It would advance it by fixing a historic wrong and shatter the Palestinian illusion that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel."

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