WASHINGTON President-elect Donald Trump said on Thursday he will nominate bankruptcy attorney David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Friedman said he looked forward to taking up his post in Jerusalem, implying a move from Tel Aviv that would mark a break in longstanding U.S. foreign policy and anger the Muslim world.
While campaigning for the presidency, Trump pledged to switch the 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.
"(Friedman) has been a long-time friend and trusted advisor to me. His strong relationships in Israel will form the foundation of his diplomatic mission and be a tremendous asset to our country as we strengthen the ties with our allies and strive for peace in the Middle East," Trump said in a statement issued by his team on Thursday.
The Republican made clear during his campaign that he would support Israel in a number of critical areas, said he would not put pressure on Israel to engage in talks with the Palestinians.
The United States and other powers do not regard Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Other nations embassies are located in Tel Aviv - and do not recognize Israel's annexation of Arab East Jerusalem following its capture in the 1967 Middle East war.
One of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is resolving the rival demands for Jerusalem's future.
Palestinians regard the ancient city - which contains sites sacred to the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths - as the future capital of a separate state.
Friedman, who specializes in litigation and bankruptcy law, said in the statement that he would work tirelessly to "strengthen the unbreakable bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region, and look forward to doing this from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had a fractious relationship with Democratic President Barack Obama, has welcomed Trump's election, chatting with him by phone and posting a video on Facebook promoting ties with the United States.
In an interview with Israeli left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, in June, Friedman was asked whether Trump would support the creation of an independent Palestinian state - a bedrock of U.S. foreign policy which supports a two-state solution.
"The answer is – not without the approval of the Israelis,” said Friedman. "If the Israelis don’t want to do it, so he doesn’t think they should do it. ... He does not think it is an American imperative for it to be an independent Palestinian state."
There was no immediate comment from the Israel embassy in Washington on the news.
ADVOCATE OF SETTLEMENT BUILDING
Friedman is also considered far-right on issues, including settlement building and has advocated for the annexation of the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.
The Obama administration has been highly critical of Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most countries view all Israeli settlements on occupied land that the Palestinians seek for their own state as illegal.
The Palestinians, who want to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, say settlements are a fundamental obstacle to peace. The last U.S.-backed talks on statehood collapsed in 2014.
J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group based in Washington, said it was "vehemently opposed" to Friedman's nomination.
"This nomination is reckless, putting America's reputation in the region and credibility around the world at risk," the statement said.
The Zionist Organization for America, a conservative Jewish-American pro-Israel group welcomed the nomination, saying he had "the potential to be the greatest U.S. ambassador to Israel ever."
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations, said Friedman’s nomination “was designed to send a signal that there will be significant break in tone, style and perhaps substance from the Obama administration” in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
“The peace process is just dead right now,” Miller said, alluding to the Obama administration’s failed efforts. But he said it was too early to see Friedman’s nomination as Trump’s disavowal of a two-state solution.
Miller noted that Trump’s aides have sent conflicting signals on whether they are serious about acting quickly on his promise to move the embassy, and that it was unclear whether that would happen.
Presidential candidates have in the past promised to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and then reneged, deciding ultimately that the city's status should first be resolved by parties to the conflict.
In early December, Obama renewed the presidential waiver, signed by every U.S. president for the past two decades, against moving America’s embassy to Jerusalem for another six months. It effectively means any action by Trump would be delayed until at least June.
(Additional reporting by Eric Beech and Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Jonathan Oatis and Simon Cameron-Moore)