Does his envoy’s backing for annexation mean Trump is on board too? Not so fast

David Friedman says Israel has the ‘right’ to keep parts of the disputed West Bank. But his boss, much less enthusiastic about the settlements, may end up opting for the status quo

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left and US Ambassador David Friedman, right, attend a ceremony in Jerusalem, May 21, 2017. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left and US Ambassador David Friedman, right, attend a ceremony in Jerusalem, May 21, 2017. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

In April, US President Donald Trump described his envoy to Israel, David Friedman, as a “wonderful, beautiful baby.” He was referring to his ambassador’s incredulous reaction to his spontaneous decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

But Friedman wasn’t born yesterday. The 60-year-old bankruptcy lawyer-turned-ambassador may not always be diplomatic but he is also neither naive nor uncalculating. His actions and statements aim at advancing the interests of the Jewish state, largely as they are interpreted by Israel’s right-wing, pro-settlement camp, for which he has a great deal of sympathy.

His controversial comments published Saturday declaring Israel’s right to keep “some” unspecified parts of the West Bank “under certain circumstances” were thus understood by many as a harbinger of Washington giving the green light to the Israel annexation of all settlements, as promised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his April election campaign. Given the history of the Trump administration’s pro-Israel moves — including the Golan recognition, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the Friedman-run embassy to the city — it is not hard to envisage that the White House could declare support for Israel’s claim to the Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank, or at least not obstructing the extension of Israeli rule to some or all of them.

Since the Golan recognition in late March seemed carefully timed to boost Netanyahu’s April re-election chances, furthermore, it is tempting to believe that Trump could give him a similar gift a few weeks before Israelis head to the polls again in the fall.

But Washington has still not taken a firm policy on annexation, as Friedman himself acknowledged in his interview Saturday to The New York Times.

Asked how the White House would react if Netanyahu, as promised, applied Israeli law to the West Bank settlements, Friedman replied: “We really don’t have a view until we understand how much, on what terms, why does it make sense, why is it good for Israel, why is it good for the region, why does it not create more problems than it solves… These are all things that we’d want to understand, and I don’t want to prejudge.”

An unnamed US official later clarified that Jerusalem and Washington have not discussed and are not currently discussing plans for a unilateral annexation of “any portion of the West Bank.” The administration’s position on settlements has not changed, the official stressed. (The official stance has been that settlements are not an obstacle to peace but that their expansion is not helpful either.)

A view of houses in the Etzion bloc settlement of Efrat on November 27, 2018. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Israelis and Palestinians, however, were unimpressed by Friedman’s caveat, focusing their joy or anger, respectively, on The Times’ juicy headline — “US Ambassador Says Israel Has Right to Annex Parts of West Bank.” (Friedman’s actual quote was: “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”)

“The world view of the Trump administration, which was expressed by Ambassador Friedman, is the only one that might bring about a change,” cheered Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.

Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, also from Netanyahu’s Likud party, saw “a lot of wisdom and sense in Friedman’s comments.”

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, attacked Friedman as “illiterate in politics, history and geography,” accusing him of eagerly defending the “occupation state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with US Ambassador David Friedman as they tour a deployment of the US THAAD anti-missile defense system, March 6, 2019. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Love him or loathe him, Friedman, who is one of the three main architects of the administration’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, has never hidden his sympathy for the settlement movement. Before he became the US ambassador to Israel, he served as president of American Friends of Beit El, and wrote a column for the pro-settlement Israel National News website.

After he became a diplomat, he toned down his criticism of doves on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — whom he had denounced as “far worse than kapos” in 2016, later apologizing — but never disavowed his support for Israel’s claim to all territories currently under its control.

“Look, I don’t believe the settlements are illegal. I think I’ve been clear on that for years,” he told The Times of Israel in a May 2018 interview at his office in the newly opened US Embassy in Jerusalem.

“I have felt for years that there has been an oversimplification by the international community of the legal claims, if you will, within the West Bank,” he added.

At the time, Friedman encouraged readers to study 1967’s UN Security Council Resolution 242, which is largely seen as the legal basis of the international community’s approach to the settlements.

“It’s the only document or agreement that was agreed to by all the relevant parties, to this day,” Friedman said. “Read the commentary by Arthur Goldberg, read the commentary by Eugene Rostow, get familiar with the linguistic debate that existed there between ‘territories,’ ‘the territories,’ ‘all the territories.’ This was a heavily debated, litigated issue, and there was a compromise that was set out there.”

A billboard welcoming US President Donald Trump is seen in Bethlehem as he arrives in the West Bank city to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on May 23, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Trump may or may not be familiar with the legal arguments of these scholars, but he does not seem to share Friedman’s view of the settlements. In fact, he thinks that they “don’t help the process,” as he said in a 2017 interview with the Israel Hayom newspaper.

“Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left,” he explained. “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”

A lot of things have happened since. Most importantly, perhaps, the Palestinians have refused to engage with the Trump administration since December 2017 when it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. A key question is whether the president is inclined to woo them (which might mean resisting Friedman’s preferences), or punish them (which could indeed mean some support for annexation), for boycotting him and his team.

Some analysts have understood Friedman’s endorsement of Israel’s right to retain parts of the West Bank as a clear indication that Trump, too, is in favor of a unilateral West Bank annexation. But it is unclear what this interpretation is based upon. Friedman, whom no one ever accused of being excessively diplomatic, clearly often speaks from his heart in speeches and interviews and is not necessarily always directly representing official administration policy.

To be sure, Friedman is very close to the president, and certainly has a great deal of influence on him. But at the end of the day, Trump makes his own decisions, as demonstrated by that spontaneous one regarding the Golan, which he took after a “quickie” history lesson.

“You would really, you would do that sir?” Trump recalled Friedman asking him in disbelief, after the president had raised the idea with him. “Yeah, I think I’m doing it right now. Let’s write something up,” the president decided, and proceeded to draft his tweet announcing the historic recognition. It was formalized four days later, on March 25, in the White House.

US President Donald Trump hands his pen to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after signing a Proclamation on the Golan Heights in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, March 25, 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Whether the US administration will back a possible unilateral annexation of the West Bank will of course depend on various factors including the outcome of the September 17 Knesset elections, and the reactions of the Palestinians, the Arab world, and the international community at large to the unveiling of the administration’s “deal of the century” — if it is ever made public.

Friedman, in his New York Times interview, indicated that the administration may freeze the plan indefinitely if it believed it could cause more harm than good. “We don’t want to make things worse,” he said.

In the final days of the April campaign, when Netanyahu promised to gradually annex all the settlements in a bid to woo far-right voters, he also stressed that any such move would have to be closely coordinated with the US. He said he hoped that this would probe possible. And many pundits at the time reckoned Trump would surely encourage the prime minister to go ahead with his annexation plan when, as was then expected, the Palestinians rejected the administration’s peace proposal, which was supposed to be released around mid-June.

If the political part of the deal now never sees the light of day, which becomes increasingly possible given the delay caused by Israel’s repeat elections, however, the annexation gambit, too, might be shelved. A frustrated Trump, already impatiently critical of Israel’s “messed up” politics, could turn his attention elsewhere. And that could leave us with a continuation of the status quo — whether Friedman favors it or not.

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