President Donald Trump's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Israel faced repeated heckling at a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday as well as tough questions on views he has expressed about liberal American Jews, Jewish settlements and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who Trump has called a longtime friend and trusted adviser, has supported Israeli settlement building and advocated for the annexation of the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.
His nomination has been fiercely opposed by some American Jewish groups.
Friedman expressed regret over derogatory comments he made likening liberal American Jews to Jewish prisoners who worked for the Nazis during the Holocaust, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in his opening statement, "I regret the use of such language."
A shift in U.S. policy toward Israel has already begun. On Wednesday, with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, Trump dropped a U.S. commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, long a bedrock of Washington's Middle East policy, even as he urged Netanyahu to curb settlement construction.
The controversy over 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!"
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, acknowledged that Friedman has said things he did not agree with but said he 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.
Senator Ben Cardin, the senior Democrat on the committee, said he was concerned about Friedman's stances.
"Mr Friedman, I have questions about your preparedness for this important post. I am uncertain of how you will represent all Americans to all Israelis and whether you are committed to a longstanding U.S. policy to a two-state solution," Cardin said.
Five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel from both Republican and Democratic administrations urged the Senate in a letter not to confirm Friedman, saying that he holds "extreme, radical positions" on issues such as Jewish settlements and the two-state solution.
"We believe him to be unqualified for the position," wrote the former ambassadors including Thomas Pickering, Edward Walker, Daniel Kurtzer, James Cunningham and William Harrop.
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.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry)