Casting doubt over peace prospects, US envoy says settlers staying put — report

In closed meeting with visiting US Jewish leaders, David Friedman says eviction of settlements would spark civil war; hosts and US embassy say words taken out of context

American Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attends the lobby for Israel-US relations at the Knesset on July 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
American Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attends the lobby for Israel-US relations at the Knesset on July 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman reportedly expressed doubt about the need for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that would see settlers removed from the West Bank, telling American Jewish leaders at a conference in Jerusalem that the settlers “aren’t going anywhere.”

Addressing about 100 leading American Jewish figures at a closed meeting on Sunday as part of a summit of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Friedman said that evicting and relocating the hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in territories sought by Palestinians for a future state would spark a civil war, Channel 10 reported Monday, quoting three sources familiar with the content of the speech.

A spokesperson for the Conference of Presidents said the remarks had been distorted and the US embassy said that the remarks do not indicate that the Trump administration is no longer committed to putting together a peace plan.

According to the report, Friedman, who was seen as close to the settlement movement before becoming envoy, said that IDF officers who would have to carry out evacuations are increasingly “people who believe this land was given to them by God,” and would likely refuse to carry such orders.

He also cast doubts over the need or prospects for a peace deal, despite Trump administration efforts to put together a plan.

“The argument that a peace agreement is needed to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is a platitude,” Friedman said. “People have been saying for 25 years that the situation [in the territories] cannot continue, but what has happened in those years? Israel has only grown and prospered.”

A resident of the Amona outpost shouts at police officers through a megaphone during the evacuation of the illegal settlement on February 1, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Friedman referred to US President Donald Trump’s efforts to promote a peace deal dubbed the “deal of the century.”

“We don’t want to raise the expectations too much regarding the chance of achieving peace,” he said. “We are realistic. We want a peace deal, but know it won’t eliminate Hezbollah or Islamic State.”

The envoy, known for his hawkish views, seemed to indicate that Palestinians could not be trusted with a state of their own, endorsing the view expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel must hold onto the Jordan Valley for security reasons.

Palestinian leaders “haven’t shown they are capable of building institutions making it possible to live peacefully with their neighbors,” Friedman said. “We must look at the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians not as a marriage, but as a divorce.”

He also said the US embassy would be moved to Jerusalem before the end of 2019, referring to that deadline as an outside date.

The report said a number of conference participants, leaders of major Jewish organizations, were “startled” by Friedman’s statements.

A spokesperson for the Conference of Presidents said the words attributed to Friedman “were taken out of context, are incomplete, and are therefore a distortion of the ambassador’s remarks.”

The US embassy also qualified the remarks.

“The Channel 10 report is based upon three attendees at the conference who failed to provide much of the context behind Ambassador Friedman’s comments as well as significant additional and related remarks by the Ambassador,” a spokesperson said.

“Ambassador Friedman made clear in his remarks that the president is committed to a comprehensive peace agreement that benefits both Israelis and Palestinians and that the US is working on a plan to achieve that goal. As for settlements, the ambassador believes that unrestrained settlement growth is not helpful for peace.”

In the past, Friedman has been a staunch supporter of the settlement movement. Before taking up his post, he served as president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, an organization that supports the large West Bank settlement near Ramallah, and he has a history of excoriating groups who criticize Israel’s settlement policy.

He has continued to express support for the settlement movement since his appointment as ambassador. In September, Friedman said that settlements “are part of Israel.”

Last month, Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reported that Friedman had asked the US State Department to stop calling Israel’s presence in the West Bank an “occupation” in official documents. He reportedly recommended using the term “West Bank territory” instead of the “occupied territories.”

The State Department rejected the request, according to the report, but agreed to take up the subject again in the future. A State Department official later called the report “twisted and misleading” when asked for comment, though she did not elaborate.

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