No future president will reverse Jerusalem embassy move, US envoy says

David Friedman believes no party would take position ‘completely contrary to reality’ by moving mission back to Tel Aviv; insists Israel can do what it wants with settlements

New US ambassador to Israel David Friedman kisses the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)
New US ambassador to Israel David Friedman kisses the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has downplayed the chances that a future president could reverse Washington’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the city as capital.

In an interview published Friday in the Israel Hayom tabloid, Friedman also said the US does not view Israeli settlement building as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians, and would not tell Israel to desist from specific building plans or other moves in the West Bank.

Friedman said he could not see either a Republican or Democrat administration in the White House reversing US President Donald Trump’s December 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy, despite warnings from Democrats against the move at the time.

“In order for an administration to reverse this, they would have to conclude that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel and Tel Aviv is. I think that would be a far more controversial thing to do than what the president did,” he said.

People watch as US President Donald Trump speaks in a prerecorded video shown at the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It would be completely at odds with reality and I don’t believe that there is any American politician of any party – of no party – who would take a position that is completely contrary to reality,” he added.

While moving the embassy to Jerusalem has enjoyed wide bipartisan support in Congress since 1995, presidents from both parties had always balked at moving the embassy out of fears it could inflame tensions in the region and prejudge negotiations over one of the conflicts most freighted issues.

Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while Israel regards the whole city as its undivided capital.

A protestor holds a placard reading “Al-Quds (Jerusalem in Arabic) belongs to the Muslims” during a protest in Istanbul against the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Ozan Kose)

Trump has said by recognizing Jerusalem, he removed the sticking point and thus is allowing negotiations to move forward, but Palestinians have responded by blackballing US efforts to jump-start talks.

A highly anticipated US peace plan being drafted by the administration has yet to be published, but has already been rejected by the Palestinian Authority leadership.

While Trump said last month that Israel would pay a “higher price” in talks because of the US recognition of Jerusalem, Friedman said the president was only referring to possible goodwill gestures that Israel could decide to make.

“We would hope to get reciprocal consideration, but no specific demand. No demand, frankly, of any kind. There is absolutely no quid pro quo,” he said.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman in a Times of Israel interview at the US Embassy, Jerusalem, May 30, 2018 (Matty Stern, U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

Friedman’s comments were published days after Paraguay announced it was moving its embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, four months after following the US’s own move.

Israel, which had celebrated its close ties to Paraguay in May, reacted by closing its own embassy in Asuncion, and US Vice President Mike Pence called Paraguay President Mario Abdo Benitez and urged him to keep the mission in Jerusalem.

A picture shows the empty entrance and a sign on the door of Paraguay’s closed embassy in Jerusalem on September 6, 2018. (AFP / THOMAS COEX)

In the Paraguay case, then-president Horacio Cartes had made the transfer in his last months of office without consulting Abdo Benitez, who had already been elected. Guatemala is the only other country to move its embassy to Jerusalem.

Abdo Benitez said Thursday that Paraguay would “stick to international law and the United Nations’ resolution that still considers [Jerusalem] a territory in conflict” between Israel and the Palestinians.

‘We don’t tell Israel what to do’

Friedman also told the free tabloid, which is seen as close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is owned by Trump backer Sheldon Adelson, that Washington was not telling Israel to avoid construction in the settlements, but would at times ask it to consider some curbs.

“We don’t tell Israel what to do and what not to do. It’s a sovereign country and they have to make those decisions,” he said.

Illustrative image of a new neighborhood in the Jewish settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, on January 26, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“But we do have an open relationship and a good faith relationship, we talk about these plans and we do so from the perspective that the president expressed early on in his presidency – that settlements are not an obstacle to peace but if unrestrained settlement expansion continues, mathematically speaking, there will be much greater limits on territory that could be given to Palestinians,” he added.

Unlike previous administrations, which regularly condemned settlement construction and urged Israel to curb building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Trump administration has been almost totally silent on the issue.

Illustrative: Palestinian women from the Jalazoun refugee camp stand at a crossroad in the West Bank city of Ramallah with the Israeli settlement of Beit El seen behind them, on January 25, 2017. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Friedman himself was a donor to the settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah, before becoming ambassador.

He said that US officials, when presented with Israeli building plans in the West Bank, only judge against what he said was Israel’s “reasonable” overall development strategy.

“We never tell them, ‘You must pull this out.’ If we have an issue with something we say, ‘Do you really need to go this far? Can you build closer in to the existing property lines?'” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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