President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for US ambassador to Israel is the head of an organization that is being sued by Palestinians for its role in the theft of their land for settlements and other Israeli war crimes.
Announcing the nomination, the Trump transition team said that David Friedman would serve from Jerusalem, “Israel’s eternal capital” – signaling that the new administration intends to move the US embassy to the city from its current location in Tel Aviv.
Friedman is being described as “more extreme” even than the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reports, Friedman has called President Barack Obama an “anti-Semite” and labeled supporters of the liberal Zionist lobby group J Street as “kapos” – a term used to describe Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in the death camps.
Friedman supports the outright annexation of the occupied West Bank and has argued that absorbing the Palestinian population would not threaten Israel’s status as a Jewish-ruled state because, allegedly, “Nobody really knows how many Palestinians live there.”
A bankruptcy lawyer, Friedman is president of American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center, a nonprofit organization that raises about $2 million a year, mostly for the Beit El settlement, north of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
This is one of a group of organizations and individuals currently being sued for $34.5 billion by Palestinians who accuse them of financing and profiting from Israel’s settlements.
The lawsuit argues that directly supporting Israeli settlements with tax-exempt charitable funds amounts to money laundering and tax fraud and aids and abets crimes including theft of Palestinian property, home demolitions, maiming, murder, ethnic cleansing and even genocide.
The lawsuit alleges that American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center has raised large amounts of money from its annual dinners and then “knowingly sent those monies overseas to promote and encourage criminal activity, i.e., wholesale violence directed at Palestinians, arms trafficking and theft of private property.”
“I was personally stunned by the nomination,” Martin McMahon, the lead attorney in the lawsuit, told The Electronic Intifada. “In any diplomatic post both countries are served when the ambassador has rapport and credibility and is viewed as a neutral referee.”
Friedman, McMahon noted, is opposed by a significant number of Jewish Americans. “They support a two-state solution which US Secretary of State John Kerry has said is near impossible to achieve as a result of illegal land confiscation which Friedman has financed for 10 years at least,” McMahon stated.
“[Friedman’s] Beit El settlement continues stealing Palestinian property,” McMahon said, noting that even the World Zionist Organization ceased land transactions related to Beit El because of the amount of forged and fraudulent documents involved.
The plaintiffs in the case are 20 individuals and five village councils who say they are victims of these crimes.
They include the Palestinian activist Bassem al-Tamimi who has been jailed for his nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation, the author Susan Abulhawa and Hiba Barghouti, whose Palestinian American brother Abdelrahman Barghouthi was killed by the Israeli army during a visit to the West Bank.
The lawsuit states that Beit El “operates a sniper school with US taxpayer financial assistance in which it trains settlers in the use of sniper scopes, automatic weapons and military tactics to be used against their Palestinian neighbors.”
According to Haaretz, the Beit El settlement’s yeshiva – or Jewish religious school – is “headed by a militant rabbi who has urged Israeli soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate settlements and who has argued that homosexual tendencies arise from eating certain foods.”
It adds that the organization’s donor base “includes the family foundation of the parents of Jared Kushner, President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law,” who is expected to play a significant role in the new administration.
The Bet El organization makes no secret of Friedman’s role. In a Facebook post on Friday it congratulated him on his nomination and said that in his position as president, Friedman “has been a pioneer philanthropist and builder of Jewish institutions and housing projects in Judea and Samaria,” the term Israel uses for the occupied West Bank.
The group’s 2016 annual dinner featured keynote speeches by Danny Danon, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, and John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN who is tipped for a senior role in Trump’s foreign policy team.
Friedman was in the top-level dinner committee for the 2016 gala, typically signalling that he made a significant personal donation.
McMahon told The Electronic Intifada that the judge had recently lifted a stay on the lawsuit. The next step will be for the defendants to argue that the judge should dismiss it, while the plaintiffs will argue that it should go ahead. He expects a decision on whether the case can proceed around March.