Donald Trump’s outgoing US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has expressed confidence that the major shifts in Washington’s policy vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians cannot be reversed by the Biden administration.
“I’m frankly somewhere between addicted and intoxicated with what I’ve been able to do, and how much joy it gives me,” he told The New York Times in a parting interview reviewing his time in Israel. The Trump administration, said Friedman, has “changed the narrative dramatically.”
“There’s no going back on what we’ve been able to do,” said Friedman.
(The interview was published Sunday, but carried out last Monday, two days before pro-Trump supporters invaded the US Capitol; Friedman commented on those events on Friday.)
Under Trump’s leadership, the US administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there from Tel Aviv, and recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. It withdrew millions in aid to the Palestinians and shuttered the PLO office in Washington. The Trump peace plan unveiled last January — forcefully opposed by the Palestinians — did not call for the evacuation of Israeli settlements and would have allowed Israel to annex large swaths of the West Bank under its framework.
But Israel’s plans to unilaterally annex parts of the area were put on ice when the US clinched a normalization deal between Jerusalem and the United Arab Emirates in August. That agreement was followed in succession by deals establishing diplomatic ties between Israel and Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, all of which were brokered by the Trump administration. The UAE, Sudan and Morocco received significant rewards from the US for opening ties with Israel.
In addition, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first top American diplomat to visit a Jewish settlement in the West Bank last year. In November 2018, his State Department said the US would no longer see settlements as contrary to international law. During his last visit to Israel, Pompeo also announced that Washington would designate as “anti-Semitic” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which seeks to isolate Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.
Freidman said the Trump administration “injected a tremendously needed dose of realism into the Palestinian psyche about what’s achievable and what’s not.” He said the Trump peace plan was “a gift to the Palestinian people” that would make their “quality of life far more bearable.”
For the US to press Israel on increased settlement building, “just to kind of virtue-signal that we think the Palestinians should have something more, made no sense to me,” he said.
The ambassador also said Israel could yet take unilateral steps to determine its borders, though he conceded such a move would be less than ideal.
He said Israel would “continue a process that, hopefully, we’ve been helpful in starting, of determining internally — forget about the rest of the world — what its eastern border should be.”
“They can act unilaterally,” he said, referring to an Israeli annexation. “It’s suboptimal, but at some point, it’s just sort of necessary just to move on.”
Friedman acknowledged that US President-elect Biden would return to a “more internationally accepted view” of settlements as illegal. But he insisted the Trump peace plan “has the advantage of being a realistic two-state solution that is endorsed generally by the Israeli public. Why would you throw that out?”
He opined: “A flood of refugees into Israel? Never going to happen. Dividing Jerusalem? It’s just never going to happen. Israel giving up certain parts of its biblical heartland? Never going to happen.”
Friedman, who was seen as unusually close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also said he didn’t interfere with Israeli elections. “It may not look that way, but I respect Israel’s democracy,” he said. He also signaled he would seek Israeli citizenship, but not immediately.
“I’m going to stay American-only for at least four years,” he said. “I want to give myself every opportunity to return to government.”