Envoy warns US could pull support for annexation if Israel ‘ignores’ Trump terms

David Friedman denies threatening Israel, says he only wants to ‘let people know where we stand’; also acknowledges ‘differences of views’ within White House on annexation timing

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addressing a briefing hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, February 9, 2020 (Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addressing a briefing hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, February 9, 2020 (Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Sunday appeared to warn the Israeli government against applying sovereignty over any parts of the West Bank before next month’s Knesset election, citing US President Donald Trump’s mention of a bilateral committee that must conclude its mapping work before Jerusalem would be allowed to go ahead with its planned annexation.

“I am not suggesting that the government of Israel should not do whatever it wants to do. Israel is a sovereign state. But people should know that if the president’s position is simply ignored then we’re not going to be in a position to go forward,” he said at a briefing at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a hawkish think tank.

“There is no way that any president that preceded President Trump would recognize Israel’s annexation of anything at any time. So don’t suggest that we’re somehow being harsher than prior presidents,” he said.

“The president got up and he made a speech. And he said there will be a committee and the committee will go through a process; the process will not last very long, but we want to go through a process.”

Friedman was referring to a statement Trump made during the festive January 28 unveiling of his peace plan at the White House. “We will form a joint committee with Israel to convert the conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering so that recognition can be immediately achieved,” the US president said at the time, standing next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We’re going to go through a mapping process to convert a map which is drawn of more than a million to one into something which really shows on the ground how the territory will be put together,” the US envoy said on Sunday.

“It’s not unduly difficult, but it’s also not simple, because there are a lot of judgment calls. We don’t want to do this piecemeal,” he went on, adding that it would be “a mistake” to have Israel apply sovereignty over different areas of the West Bank incrementally, forcing the US to recognize numerous annexations.

“We want to do it once, holistically, in totality, and get it done right,” Friedman said. “We just want to get it done right. That’s not too much to ask. And that was the president’s message when he spoke about it the first time.”

The White House now expects Israel to go along with that agreement, he added.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a joint statement in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, DC, on January 28, 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images/AFP)

During his briefing Sunday, the US envoy referred to political pressure on Netanyahu from his right-wing base, including members of his own cabinet, to start the annexation process before the March 2 Knesset elections.

“The politics seemed to be emerging that people are saying, who cares about the process, let’s do whatever we want,” he said. “I can’t stop that.”

Earlier on Sunday, Friedman published two tweets in which he appeared to threaten the Israeli government not to rush to annex.

“As we have stated, the application of Israeli law to the territory which the Plan provides to be part of Israel is subject to the completion [of] a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee,” he wrote. “Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition.”

Addressing reporters at the end of his brief presentation about the so-called Deal of the Century, Friedman said that his tweets should not be understood as a threat but rather as a courteous reminder of the president’s position.

“A little bit of patience to go through a process, to do it right, is not something we think is too much to ask for. Israel is a sovereign nation. But it seems to me, with the news out that the cabinet was about to be pushed in a direction that was potentially adverse to our view of the process — at least let people know where we stand,” he said. “It wasn’t a threat. Just let people know where we stand.”

Friedman also appeared to acknowledge publicly for the first time that Jerusalem received contradictory messages from the US administration regarding when exactly Israel would be allowed to annex.

“We might have had some differences of views as to timing, but in very short order it became clear that we were all on the same page,” Friedman said.

Mere moments after the peace deal’s unveiling on January 28, Netanyahu told reporters that his cabinet would vote in favor of annexation the very next week. Friedman appeared to back that statement, telling reporters that “Israel does not have to wait at all” when asked whether there was a “waiting period” that would have to elapse before the country could extend sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and settlements.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner during a television interview on the North Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, January 29, 2020 (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

A short while later, the president’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, the peace plan’s chief author, apparently contradicted Friedman, making plain in a series of interviews that the White House expected Israel not to annex any areas before the work of the bilateral committee is completed.

The administration does not think that the committee’s work could be completed by March 2, Friedman said. The committee has six members — three Israelis and three Americans — and he is the only member of the US delegation living in Israel, so its work will have to include several trips to the region by its other members, Friedman said Sunday.

“The committee will proceed as quickly as it can,” he said.

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