Palestinians officials excoriated US ambassador David Friedman to Israel on Saturday, hours after The New York Times published an interview with the envoy in which he said that some degree of Israeli annexation of the West Bank would be legitimate.
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.
Another Palestinian official, Mustafa Barghouti, called Friedman a “spokesman for the settlers,” Haaretz reported, and said his comments amounted to “chutzpah.”
“Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank,” Friedman told the Times.
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, he said, “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.
Friedman, in the New York 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.”
In response, Erekat tweeted Saturday: “President Trump’s ambassador provides enough background in order for everyone not to attend the Manama meeting: Their vision is about annexation of occupied territory, a war crime under international law.”
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.
“The Palestinian leadership is committed to peace, but not at any price; to a just, comprehensive and lasting peace on the basis of international law, [UN] resolutions and the principle of a two-state solution that Friedman is now avoiding,” the party said in a statement carried by official PA news outlet Wafa.
Meretz party leader Tamar Zandberg also slammed Friedman’s annexation remarks and accused the Trump administration of “only serving [Israel’s] extreme right.”
“Friedman is the US ambassador to the state of Israel, not the US ambassador to the settlements, and he should know that annexation would be a disaster for Israel,” she wrote on Twitter. “The US ambassador should not be here advancing the messianic settler movement that is working to thwart the possibility of peace and security without the occupation.”
Hadash-Ta’al party leader Ayman Odeh tweeted a message to Friedman “to relay to the orange man in the Oval Office: The only solution that will ensure security and respect for Israelis and Palestinians is the end of the Occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel,” he wrote. “Unilateral annexation is a war crime.”
Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now urged Trump to immediately recall Friedman, calling him a “Trojan horse on behalf of the settler right.”
“Friedman’s extreme and irresponsible remarks, just before the publication of President Trump’s peace plan, have made it clear that the American president — if he intends to act as an honest peace broker — must order Friedman to pack his bags tonight,” Peace Now said.
Jeremy Ben Ami, president of the American liberal Israel lobby group J Street, said the remarks make it clear that Friedman “is acting not as the US ambassador to Israel but as the settlement movement’s ambassador to the United States.”
“By essentially giving the Netanyahu government a green light to begin unilaterally annexing Palestinian territory in the West Bank the Trump administration is endorsing a flagrant violation of international law. They are discarding decades of bipartisan US policy, trampling on the rights of Palestinians and helping the Israeli right-wing to destroy Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people,” Ben Ami added in a press statement.
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.
Asked by the New York Times whether the Trump plan would provide for Palestinian statehood, Friedman responded: “What’s a state?”
Friedman said the plan would not be released at all if the administration concluded it would do more harm than good. “We don’t want to make things worse… Our goal is not to show how smart we are at the expense of people’s safety.”
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.
The Palestinians have already dismissed the Trump peace plan and said they will not attend the Bahrain summit, rejecting it as heavily favorable to Israel.
Friedman said “There’s more blame on the Palestinian side” for the failure to resolve the conflict to date, while allowing that Israel had “made its own mistakes” too. “There were some extraordinarily generous proposals made to the Palestinians that they turned down,” he said.
He castigated the PA, citing its “very, very poor track record on human rights” and said its institutions “don’t give anyone in the region sufficient comfort that Palestinian autonomy is not threatening… The Palestinian leadership is really the difficulty right now.”
The public comments made by administration officials so far suggest the US plan will lean heavily on substantial financial support for the Palestinian economy, much of it funded by the Gulf Arab states, in return for concessions on territory and statehood.
“The absolute last thing the world needs is a failed Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan,” Friedman said in the Times interview.
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.”
In December 2017, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The administration moved its embassy, headed by Ambassador Friedman, to the city in May 2018. In March, shortly before Israeli general elections, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. Also 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.
Meanwhile, Trump administration officials have been dampening expectations about the peace plan rollout. Senior White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner in an interview broadcast Sunday expressed doubts about the Palestinians’ ability to govern themselves without Israeli involvement. “The hope is that over time, they can become capable of governing,” he told the Axios news site.
On Monday, the Washington Post published leaked remarks made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told US Jewish leaders in a closed-door conversation that the plan might not “gain traction.”
When asked about Pompeo’s skepticism, Trump told reporters outside the White House: “He may be right.”
AFP contributed to this report.