For years President Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel had funneled millions of tax-exempt American dollars into a hardline West Bank settlement through a U.S. charity of which he is the director. Now newly-uncovered documents show his money will continue to pay for settlements in the future.
A report out of Israel this week states that part of a pot of money raised by Trump’s nominee, David Friedman, was wired to an Israeli charity for upcoming construction in the settlement of Beit El, the very sort of construction that the White House condemned just last week.
“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace,” the White House said in a statement, “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”
Indeed a very odd scenario is at play in which, if Friedman’s nomination is OK’d by Congress, he will go to work with a stake in a project his new boss has already labeled as a bad move with regard to U.S. interests.
According to a financial statement obtained by Peace Now and independently reviewed by Mondoweiss, American Friends of Beit El, where Friedman serves as the director, transferred around $650,000 (2.47 million NIS) in 2015 to the Israeli non-government organization Sukkat Ovadia, the financier of the construction project in question.
Peace Now confirmed Friedman’s group gave previous donations to Sukkat Ovadia in 2013.
The Beit El project is a five-story building with 20 residential units. Israel’s Defense Minister announced the tender five days after Trump’s inauguration, as part of a wave of 2,500 new settlement units. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed the settlements, stating “we are building—and we will continue to build.”
At the time it was not disclosed where the settlements would be built in the West Bank. Peace Now discovered Beit El’s building was among those given permission, and questioned in their report yesterday if expansion there was “a gift to the U.S. ambassador-designate?”
More controversial is the legal status of the land where the Friedman settlements will be located. Peace Now reported the site for the expansion is on land privately owned by Palestinians. Sukkat Ovadia once attempted to build a “learning center” in the same plot in 2014, but work was stopped as the site was deemed illegal by the Israeli government.
However, with the passing of the “legalization law” Monday, a landmark regulation that grants Israel sweeping authority to build on tracts in the West Bank for which settlers do not hold the titles, the settlement has new legal grounds to move forward under local rules.
Still, construction in the West Bank on lands where Palestinians can show property ownership is illegal according to every other nation and all international institutions in the world.
“The plan instructs to demolish the part of the building that is on private [Palestinian-owned] land, retroactively legalizes the remainder of the structure, and allows for additional floors,” Peace Now said.
The sole purpose of American Friends of Beit El is to raise capital in the U.S. for protects in the settlement, including its religious school, residential units, a tourism center and a media outlet where Friedman has been a columnist. Copies of the organization’s 990 tax forms show the group sends around two million dollars per year overseas. Most of the money is collected through an annual “dressy” banquet. Last year’s event held in Manhattan was keynoted by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
The latest public tax records show in 2014 the organization spent $171,448 of its own money to host the annual fundraiser.
Such a close monetary tie to a settlement has put Friedman at odds with progressive Jewish groups that now are seeking to muster a groundswell of opposition to the Senate confirmation.
The date of Friedman’s confirmation hearing has not yet be scheduled, but leading the efforts to sandbag him, Jewish Voice for Peace launched a campaign to phone bank the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Friedman is not just a supporter of Israel’s illegal and immoral settlements, he is a leader in the settlement movement having spent years funneling money from the US to settlements,” the group’s website states.
The liberal Zionist lobby group J Street is also “vehemently opposed” to Friedman, writing he “lacks any diplomatic or policy credentials and has attacked fellow Jews and public figures with hateful accusations that are disqualifying for representing our country in any capacity.”
J Street’s conflict with Friedman runs deeper than a dispute over settlements. His acerbic online commentary has poured gasoline onto their differences: President Obama an “anti-Semite,” Israeli citizenship should be conditional upon “loyalty” to the government, and critics at J Street are “worse than kapos”—a term of harsh offense used for Jews who collaborated with Nazis while imprisoned in concentration camps. All those statements were penned in Friedman’s column for the settler media organization Arutz Sheva, a group he supports through American Friends of Beit El.
Moreover, in Israel Friedman has become a topic of two left-leaning demonstrations, with protesters at “Women’s March” events in Tel Aviv and Haifa on Jan. 21 calling for Trump to drop him.
Yet, it’s not all heckles for Friedman.
He retains strong support among the political right in Israel. Settlers and the orthodox Jewish community in the U.S. too generally greeted his nomination with enthusiasm. A few have even jumped to his defense with liberal Jews.
Two orthodox rabbis recently called for progressive Jewish organizations to approach Friedman with an open mind. One of the rabbis, Eli Weinstock, works at the congregation where First Daughter Ivanka Trump underwent conversion to Judaism, reported the Times of Israel.
The Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff captured scenes of Friedman supporters in a recent report where she visited Beit El and observed a girls school in the settlement bearing the name of Friedman’s father, Morris Friedman, who also was a benefactor to the settlement.
The senior Friedman was a friend of Yaakov “Katzele” Katz, one of the founders of the settlement in 1977, and the current director of Beit El’s institutions and businesses, including the news organization where David Friedman blogs.
Katz is a long-standing public figure in pro-settler circles. He is a former member of Israel’s parliament and was the head of the far-right National Union party. In December, speaking to Israel’s Army Radio, as reported by the Washington Post, Katz revealed Trump gave $10,000 to Beit El in 2003 (a figure borne out by the American Friends of Beit El’s tax returns).
Katz indicated in the interview the president’s donation was at the behest of David Friedman.
Similarly, Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who serves on the board of his parents’ foundation, oversaw a gift of $58,500 from 2011 to 2013 to Beit El and its institutions, according to Kushner family foundation tax forms reviewed by Haaretz.
Before his nomination as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, Friedman was Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer on the Atlantic City casino deal. He has no expertise in the Middle East other than fundraising for a settlement. In the past he has spoken against self-determination for Palestinians, advocating instead for Israeli annexation of the occupied territory, excluding Gaza, for which he has no plan. In an interview with Haaretz, he explained his vision by citing discredited population data that grossly under-represented the number of Palestinians living in the West Bank.
So where does this all go? If Friedman is confirmed as ambassador, in a few weeks he will be sitting in a house that he owns in Jerusalem. And ten miles away in the West Bank in Beit El, workers will lay a foundation for settler residences in flagrant contradiction to U.S. policy, with the tab covered by Ambassador Friedman.