Erdan hails US envoy’s annexation remark as ‘the only way to bring about change’

Ministers defend US Ambassador David Friedman, who came under fire from Palestinians for saying Israel has right to retain some of West Bank

Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan on Sunday praised the US ambassador to Israel for saying the Jewish state has the right to annex “some” of the West Bank.

“The world view of the Trump administration, which was expressed by Ambassador (David) Friedman, is the only one that might bring about a change,” said Erdan.

The minister said this was the only way to “make the Palestinians understand that boycotting Israel and the United States, and their support for terror and incitement, will not bring them any achievements.”

“They are the ones who will lose by rejecting peace,” Erdan said.

Tzachi Hanegbi speaks at a stamp issuance for Etzel fighters at the Prime Minister office in Jerusalem on May 17, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

“The position of the majority of the Israeli society is that any future agreement will be based on having our control over Judea and Samaria unchanged,” said fellow Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, referring to the West Bank’s regions by their biblical names. “That’s why there is a lot of wisdom and sense in Friedman’s comments.”

In an interview published by The New York Times on Saturday, Friedman said that some degree of Israeli annexation of the West Bank would be legitimate.

“Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank,” the ambassador said.

Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin said that Friedman’s comments “show a public readiness even among international officials, including in the US, to Israel’s intention to declare sovereignty over significant areas of the West Bank, if not all of it.”

Economy Minister Eli Cohen of the Kulanu party also tweeted his support for Friedman, saying that there was no need for the ambassador to apologize in the face of Palestinian anger at his remarks.

“Now, after 52 years, the time is ripe to start extending Israeli sovereignty for now, over the settlement blocs, like in Jerusalem,” Cohen wrote. “Sooner or later other countries will recognize it.”

Opposition lawmaker Yoaz Hendel, one of the relatively hawkish members of the centrist Blue and White party, welcomed the statement, telling the Kan public radio that it was “in line with Blue and White’s platform.”

Blue and White MK Yoaz Hendel at the Knesset, May 29, 2019 (screenshot

“The Trump administration is taking a sober approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Hendel wrote on Twitter. “The things Friedman said are in line with the Allon Plan,” he added, referring to a 1967 plan pushed by Israeli minister Yigal Allon to divide the West Bank between Israel and Jordan.

Palestinians and Arab Israelis however, reacted angrily to Friedman’s remarks.

Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi (Hadash-Ta’al) called Friedman an “international criminal” in an interview with Army Radio.

The Palestinian Authority said it wouild consider filing a complaint at the International Criminal Court against Friedman.

In a statement Sunday, the PA’s foreign ministry said they reflected the Trump administration’s policy toward Israeli settlements, though an American official later said there was no change in the US position.

“In what logic does Friedman think that Israel has the right to annex parts of the West Bank?” the statement carried by the PA’s official WAFA news said. “On what reality did he base his conviction? On international law prohibiting the annexation of territory by force? Or the reality imposed by the occupation authorities?”

The statement also included strong personal criticism of Friedman.

“This person who is illiterate in politics, history and geography, and who belongs to the state of the settlements… has nothing to do with logic, justice or law unless they serve the occupation state which he is eager to defend by all means,” it said.

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

Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and top Palestinian negotiator, said Friedman’s remarks proved that US President Donald Trump’s administration was heavily biased in favor of Israel and that the Palestinians were justified in choosing to boycott an economic conference in Bahrain later this month where Washington is set to unveil the first phase of a long-delayed peace plan.

Saeb Erekat speaks during a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on September 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

Another Palestinian official, Mustafa Barghouti, called Friedman a “spokesman for the settlers,” Haaretz reported, and said his comments amounted to “chutzpah.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party also accused Friedman of promoting measures that were in “flagrant violation” of international law and various UN resolutions.

Following the Palestinian criticism, an American official said Israel has not presented a plan for annexation of any of the West Bank, nor is any such plan under discussion with the US.

“No plan for unilateral annexation by Israel of any portion of the West Bank has been presented by Israel to the US, nor is it under discussion,” a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. Israel’s Channel 12 indicated the official was from the US State Department.

The official was quoted by Hebrew news site Ynet as saying, furthermore, that the US administration’s position on settlements has not changed. In March, for the first time, the Trump administration ceased to refer to the West Bank as “occupied” in the State Department’s annual report on human rights around the world.

Friedman said the Obama administration, by declining to veto and thus allowing passage of a United Nations resolution in 2016 that condemned Israeli settlements as a “flagrant violation” of international law, had given credence to Palestinian claims “that the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem belong to them.” To the contrary, “certainly Israel’s entitled to retain some portion of it,” he said, referring to the West Bank.

During campaigning for the general election in April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to gradually annex all West Bank Jewish settlements, a move long supported by nearly all lawmakers in his alliance of right-wing and religious parties, and said he hoped to do so with US support.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an event in Jerusalem marking the anniversary of the transfer of the US embassy to the city, May 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Friedman, in the Times interview, declined to specify how the US might respond to unilateral Israeli annexation, saying: “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.”

The US is set to lay out an economic component of its long-awaited Mideast peace plan on June 25 and 26 in Bahrain, where Gulf Arab states are expected to make pledges to boost the troubled Palestinian economy.

But it is not clear when the political aspects of the plan — which is expected to avoid calling for the creation of a Palestinian state — will be unveiled.

Abandoning the call for a Palestinian state would end years of US support for the so-called two-state solution, which envisages an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Friedman, a staunch supporter of the Israeli settlements, told the Times that the Trump plan was aimed at improving the quality of life for Palestinians but would be unlikely to quickly enable a “permanent resolution to the conflict.”

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