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State Department: US may have ‘upgraded’ ties with Palestinians

Unusual step of having Ambassador David Friedman join meeting with Saeb Erekat a ‘step forward in our cooperation,’ spokesperson says

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

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) meets with Jason Greenblatt, the US president's assistant and special representative for international negotiations, at Abbas's office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 14, 2017. (WAFA)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) meets with Jason Greenblatt, the US president's assistant and special representative for international negotiations, at Abbas's office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 14, 2017. (WAFA)

By bringing its ambassador to Israel into meetings with Palestinian negotiators, the US administration might have actually upgraded its relations with the Palestinian Authority, the State Department said.

In an unusual move on Tuesday, the American envoy in Tel Aviv, David Friedman, joined the White House’s special envoy to the peace process as he met with senior Palestinian negotiators in Jerusalem. US Consul General in Jerusalem Donald Blome, who represents the administration to the Palestinians, also attended the meeting.

According to Israeli reports, the Palestinian negotiating team, headed by Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat, wanted to meet Greenblatt in Jerusalem because they were unwilling to host Friedman — well-known for his support for the settlements before he took up his position — in Ramallah.

As an ambassador accredited to the State of Israel, Friedman — a close confidant of US President Donald Trump — would usually not attend bilateral meetings with the PA.

But the unusual move should not be seen as a downgrade of US-Palestinian relations, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters during a briefing later Tuesday, trying to explain the unusual breaks with protocol.

“I would say it’s, in fact, the opposite, not a downgrading but perhaps even an upgrading,” Nauert said. “The fact that our US ambassador would be included in this meeting and that the Palestinians, as I understand it, would welcome him into this meeting … shows a step forward in terms of our cooperation.”

The US is “very pleased to have the ambassador’s expertise in this,” she added. “And I think it raises the level and indicates just how important it is for this administration to try to come to some sort of peace agreement.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attend the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 21, 2017. (AFP Photo/EPA Pool/Abir Sultan)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attend the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 21, 2017. (AFP Photo/EPA Pool/Abir Sultan)

Declining to further explain the diplomatic anomaly, she said it was “a positive thing that the ambassador is there… What matters is the Palestinians, as I understand it, they welcomed him … and that he was a part of that meeting, and I think that really underscores the importance that this administration is putting on that issue.”

“We know the (peace) process is going to be difficult. We know that both sides are going to have to compromise. But I think this is a good step and that we’ll continue to have additional meetings,” she said.

Also on Tuesday, a senior White House official said Friedman joined Greenblatt in his meeting with Erekat since having the president’s confidants in the room increases the chance of future peace negotiations to succeed.

“They had an open, cordial, and frank discussion on many topics related to peace negotiations,” the official told The Times of Israel. “The administration believes that in order to give everyone the best chance to reach an ultimate deal, it is critical to have negotiators that are close with the president and that is why the team includes Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, Greenblatt and Friedman.”

On Monday, a senior White House official told The Times of Israel that the purpose of Greenblatt’s trip was to lay the foundations for peace talks.

“This trip is an interim visit as talks continue about potential next steps,” he said. “President Trump has made it clear that working toward achieving a lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians is a top priority for him.”

During his last visit to Israel at the end of June, Greenblatt accompanied Kushner to a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and another with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, whom the two US officials met in his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

Palestinian sources told Hebrew and Arabic media later that the meeting had not gone well and that the Palestinian leader accused the US of taking Israel’s side while refusing US demands that Ramallah cut off payments for some convicted terrorists and their families.

US presidential adviser Jared Kushner meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on June 21, 2017 (PA press office)
US presidential adviser Jared Kushner meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on June 21, 2017 (PA press office)

Kushner reportedly began his meeting with Abbas by stating all the Israeli concerns, including stopping the payments, according to Hebrew media reports, angering Abbas.

A senior Palestinian official said at the time that preparatory talks with Greenblatt a day before the meeting with Kushner had also not gone well and became tense over the payments to prisoners that Greenblatt insisted come to an end.

Abbas has defended payments to Palestinian prisoners, including convicted terrorists, as a “social responsibility,” and said Israel was using the issue as a pretext to avoid peace talks.

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