WASHINGTON The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 12-9 on Thursday to approve President Donald Trump's nominee as ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, an outspoken bankruptcy lawyer aligned with the Israeli right.
The vote was largely along party lines, a contrast with strong bipartisan support for past ambassadors to Israel. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez joined all 11 committee Republicans in backing Friedman, despite concerns about his temperament.
Friedman, who has no diplomatic experience, is a long-time friend of Trump who has worked for the New York businessman as a bankruptcy lawyer.
In addition to investing in settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians, Friedman favours moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The relocation is strongly opposed by many U.S. allies because both Israel and the Palestinians claim the city as their capital.
Trump's selection of Friedman reflects his shift in policy toward Israel after years of friction between former President Barack Obama and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Unlike Obama, Trump has wavered on the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution, long a bedrock of Washington's Middle East policy, and backed the embassy's relocation.
Friedman is also known for using inflammatory language against those with whom he has political disagreements. Democrats said his approach could risk security.
"The region is incredibly volatile. The last thing we need in this position is someone who has a penchant for over-the-top, hyperbolic, and even false statements," Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said.
Friedman has called Obama an anti-Semite, and dismissed the liberal-leaning pro-Israel group J Street as "far worse than kapos," a reference to Jews who worked for the Nazis in World War Two concentration camps.
J Street and the Reform Jewish Movement are among groups opposing Friedman's nomination.
Friedman was heckled during his contentious February confirmation hearing. He said then that he regretted the use of such language.
Senator Ben Cardin, the committee's ranking Democrat, said Friedman also was problematic because he does not explicitly back a two-state solution for Middle East peace.
Friedman will next be considered by the full Senate, where Trump's fellow Republicans control a slim majority. He is expected to be confirmed despite continued Democratic opposition.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, praised Friedman as an "impassioned advocate" for strong U.S.-Israeli ties.
"He understands the complexity of issues at stake for the United States and the necessity to support a democratic ally in an important and unstable part of the world," Corker said.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)