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Haley reiterates U.S. support for two-state solution as Trump’s pro-Israel envoy pick takes fire

AP, Reuters

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Thursday the United States “absolutely” supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and anyone who thinks it doesn’t is in “error.”

But the Trump administration’s new U.N. envoy told reporters: “We are thinking out of the box as well, which is: What does it take to bring these two sides to the table? What do we need to have them agree on?”

Haley’s comments were far more forceful in support of a two-state solution than President Donald Trump’s on Wednesday. He said: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”

Haley said the solution to the conflict has to come from the Israelis and Palestinians, but she said several times and stressed: “We absolutely support a two-state solution.”

Earlier Thursday, the United Nations and the Arab League issued a joint statement in support of the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, saying the two-state solution is “the only way to achieve comprehensive and just settlement to the Palestinian cause.”

That appeared to put U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Arab League Chief Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, who met in Cairo, at odds with Trump.

But Haley, when asked whether the United States would carry out its obligations under a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for the establishment of two states, said: “Understand that the United States supports the two-state resolution. That’s never been wavered.

“What we’re saying is, ‘OK, let’s not just talk about the old way of doing things.'” She said. “Come to the table with all the fresh atmosphere and perspectives that we now have, and think, ‘OK, what can we do knowing all of the factors, knowing where we sit present day, and how can we move forward.'”

Guterres had stressed Wednesday that there is no “Plan B” to a two-state solution. Haley was asked if the United States had a “Plan B.”

“I think first of all a two-state solution is what we support,” she said. “Anybody who wants to say the United States doesn’t support a two-state solution — that would be an error.”

Trump also urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their joint news conference at the White House on Wednesday to “hold off” on Jewish settlement construction in territory claimed by the Palestinians for their future state, to try to facilitate talks.

“What the president has said and we agree on is that expanding settlements at this point is not helpful,” Haley said. “That’s basically what we’re saying to both sides. Let’s take a pause.”

She said what Trump and the new administration are going to try to do is facilitate “some constructive action.”

“We’re just unbiased,” Haley said. “Bring them to the table and say, OK, we’re going to do this.”

The U.S. ambassador spoke to reporters after attending the Security Council’s monthly meeting on the Middle East — her first.

Haley was highly critical of what she called the anti-Israel bias in the U.N.’s most powerful body and the “one-sided” resolution that members adopted in December condemning Israeli settlements as a “flagrant violation” of international law.

“I’m here to emphasize the United States is determined to stand up to the U.N.’s anti-Israel bias,” she said.

Haley said the U.S. will push for action on “the real threats we face in the Middle East.” She cited “Hezbollah’s illegal build-up of rockets in Lebanon” as well as the “money and weapons Iran provides to terrorists,” and pointed to the need to defeat the Islamic State extremist group and to hold Syrian President Basha Assad accountable “for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians.”

The U.N.’s Mideast envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, stressed at the council meeting that “the two-state solution remains the only way to achieve the legitimate aspirations of both peoples.”

He also warned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must never be allowed “to drift into the abyss of the extremism and radicalism sweeping the region.”

The combative attorney Trump picked as his ambassador to Israel meanwhile sought to repair the damage from past attacks on political opponents, telling Congress he deeply regretted using inflammatory language and promised to be “respectful and measured” should he be confirmed.

During his confirmation hearing Thursday, David Friedman said he deserved criticism for incendiary comments that targeted former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, liberal Jewish advocacy groups and others. Friedman had called one group, J Street, “worse than kapos” — a reference to Jews who helped the Nazis imprison fellow Jews during the Holocaust.

“Apology is the first step to atonement,” Friedman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I have profound differences of opinion with J Street. My regret is that I did not express my views respectfully.”

The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Friedman has been a fervent supporter of Israeli settlements, an opponent of Palestinian statehood and staunch defender of Israel’s government.

The hearing played out along familiar party lines. Republicans largely sought to play to the Trump nominee’s strengths, while Democrats aimed for weak spots. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., vigorously defended Friedman and rejected the notion that he needed to distance himself from passionately held beliefs. Rubio argued the U.S. should be unashamedly pro-Israel, noting that the Jewish state is America’s staunchest ally in the volatile Middle East.

But Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., delivered a blistering assessment of Friedman’s record, which the senator said is full of insulting comments and extreme views. Friedman labels anyone who disagrees with him, including the entire Obama State Department, as anti-Semitic, Udall said.

Udall referenced a letter from five former American ambassadors to Israel who called Friedman unfit for the post. The former envoys, who served Republican and Democratic presidents, cited examples of Friedman’s “extreme, radical positions,” such as believing it would not be illegal for Israel to annex the occupied West Bank.

During the hearing, Friedman assured members he would not campaign for such an annexation. He also cautioned against the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. “It makes sense to tread very carefully there,” Friedman said, echoing words used by Trump.

The letter opposing Friedman’s nomination was signed by Thomas Pickering, William Harrop, Edward Walker, Daniel Kurtzer and James Cunningham.

Friedman said he “absolutely” supports a two-state solution, but said he’s skeptical such an approach can succeed because Palestinians haven’t renounced terrorism and have refused to accept Israel as a Jewish state. But he said he would be “delighted” if it were possible to reach a two-state agreement.

Friedman appeared before the committee a day after Trump and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to endorse the two-state solution as the preferred outcome of Middle East peace talks. Their remarks at the White House effectively abandoned what has been the foundation of U.S.-led peace efforts since 2002. The Palestinians and the international community have long favored the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

But Trump declared he also could endorse a one-nation solution to the long and deep dispute between Palestinians and Israel.

Prior to the hearing, Friedman had called the two-state strategy a “narrative” and an “illusory solution in search of a nonexistent problem.” But the alternatives appear to offer dimmer prospects for peace, given Palestinian demands for statehood. Dozens of countries, including the U.S., reaffirmed their support for a two-state accord at an international conference in Paris last month, just before Trump’s inauguration.

During an exchange with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Friedman acknowledged the difficulty, if not impossibility, of a single-state approach. Just as Israel wouldn’t accept a two-state solution that didn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, Kaine said, the Palestinians shouldn’t be expected to agree to a resolution that undercut their legal rights and relegated them to second-class status.

“I think so,” Friedman said.

Friedman said it’s not his role to make policy, but he recommended efforts to create a Palestinian middle class in the Gaza Strip that is empowered with economic opportunities. He said most Palestinians are “being held hostage by a ruthless regime,” a reference to the Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized power there in 2007.

Protesters interrupted Friedman during his opening remarks. Two men, minutes apart, stood and shouted pro-Palestinian slogans. They each held up Palestinian flags before being removed by the Capitol police.

Other protesters sang before being ushered out. One blasted a “shofar,” an instrument made of a ram’s horn used by Jews during the High Holidays. He prefaced it with the traditional chant “tekiah” that precedes the blowing of the shofar.

A woman shouted, “Do not confirm David Friedman. He is a war criminal!”

Friedman faced repeated heckling at his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday as well as tough questions on his criticism of liberal American Jewst.

Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer Trump has called a longtime friend and trusted adviser, has supported Jewish settlement building and advocated the annexation of the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

His nomination has been fiercely opposed by American Jewish groups.

The heated opposition to Friedman’s nomination erupted in the hearing room as Friedman began his opening statement, with several hecklers including a man who held up the Palestinian flag and shouted about Palestinian claims to the land of Israel.

“My grandfather was exiled,” the man said before being escorted out of the room. “Palestinians will always be in Palestine!”

Some Democratic senators pressed Friedman on inflammatory comments he has made including calling Obama an anti-Semite and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish, an appeaser.

“Frankly the language you have regularly used against those who disagree with your views has me concerned about your preparedness to enter the world of diplomacy,” Ben Cardin, the senior Democrat on the committee, told the nominee.

Friedman acknowledged using overheated rhetoric as part of his passionate support for Israel, which has included financial backing for Jewish settlements built on land claimed by Palestinians.

However, he told Cardin, “There is no excuse. If you want me to rationalize it or justify it, I cannot. These were hurtful words and I deeply regret them.”

Cardin cited Friedman’s criticism of Schumer as having done the “worst appeasement of terrorists since Munich” and retorted that those words were “beyond hurtful.”

“We need a steady hand in the Middle East not a bomb thrower,” admonished Udall.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, acknowledged that Friedman has said things he did not agree with but backed the nominee as qualified, experienced and passionate.

“I believe he is the right guy at the right time. He’ll be Trump’s voice. Trump won the election,” Graham said.

Friedman is likely to be confirmed by the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.

While campaigning for the presidency, Trump pledged to switch the U.S. 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.