New US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said in an interview published Wednesday that the US will not demand Israel institute a settlement freeze as a precondition for peace talks.
“We have no demand for a settlement freeze,” he told the Israel Hayom daily, while adding that the Trump administration does not believe that halting settlement construction will help advance Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
“As you can see, in contrast to what happened in 2009, when secretary [of state Hillary] Clinton demanded a complete settlement freeze and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas still didn’t show up to negotiate, here we have no demand for a settlement freeze and Abbas is prepared to meet with the prime minister of Israel without any preconditions.”
Friedman, who officially became the US ambassador to the Jewish state after presenting his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin at a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday, also said that Trump’s stance regarding settlements is “remarkably different” from former president Barack Obama’s.
“If you look at what the president has said since taking office about settlements, his position has been remarkably different than the Obama administration’s. He has not come out and said that settlements are an obstacle to peace; he has not called for a settlement freeze; he has worked for the Israelis to come up with a common understanding about how they might proceed,” he said.
Settlements have long been one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the Palestinians and much of the international community saying that their expansion threatens the territorial continuity of a future Palestinian state.
During a meeting with Netanyahu at the White House in February, Trump said, “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.” And he told Israel Hayom in a February interview that he does not believe settlements help the peace process and does not consider settlements “a good thing for peace.” Settlements, Trump said, “don’t help the process.” He added: “Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we’ll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”
Despite Trump’s stated opposition to new settlement construction, Israel has approved some 5,500 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the US president was inaugurated in January; their announcement has been met with relatively little pushback from the White House.
In March, Israel agreed to self-imposed restrictions on new settlement construction in what was seen as a gesture to the Trump administration after months-long negotiations between the two sides failed to yield any formal understanding on the matter.
As part of the restrictions, Jerusalem agreed not to construct any new settlements or illegal outposts, while also limiting new building to inside existing settlement boundaries. However, if legal, security or topographical limitations do not allow adherence to those guidelines, new homes will be built outside the current settlement boundaries but as close as possible to them.
Netanyahu’s announcement in March of the new limitations, which he reportedly said were made in order to “be considerate of the [US] president’s requests,” came after the security cabinet voted unanimously to approve a new settlement for the evacuees of the illegal Amona outpost north of Ramallah. The planned settlement would be the first new settlement in the West Bank since the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Referring to the new planned settlement, Friedman said in the interview Wednesday that Trump was “aware of the Israeli government’s need to replace the Amona community.”
Concerning Trump’s visit to Israel next week, which comes amid stated efforts by the US president to renew peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and reach a deal, Friedman said that he does not believe Trump will arrive with any specific proposals to help jumpstart the peace process.
“I am fairly confident that the president will not come to Israel with any particular plan or road map or with any specifics on peace,” he said.
“I think he has made it clear that what he really wants to see at the beginning is for the parties to meet with each other without preconditions and to begin a discussion that would hopefully lead to peace,” he said, while adding that “I don’t know if [Trump] will ever ask Israel to make concessions in the first place.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.