The unnoticed speech in which US envoy to Israel revealed contours of peace deal
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The Deal of the Century

The unnoticed speech in which US envoy to Israel revealed contours of peace deal

Israel’s right to the West Bank is ‘obvious,’ Ambassador Friedman said on January 8, but also noted that Palestinians are ‘indigenous’ to the land and deserving of ‘independence’

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

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the Kohelet Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the Kohelet Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s special guests on his flight Sunday to Washington for the upcoming festive unveiling of the administration’s much-expected “Deal of the Century.”

Having lost his mother recently, Friedman, who is an Orthodox Jew, twice came to the back of the plane during the flight, together with some of Netanyahu’s senior advisers and religiously observant journalists, to lead afternoon and evening prayers and say kadish, the mourner’s prayer.

Friedman is one of the key architects of the US administration’s approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — together with US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner — but he declined to address any questions about the peace plan.

More of an activist than a diplomat, Friedman is usually not known for being coy about his views. Indeed, in a largely unnoticed, but very telling speech earlier this month he did reveal some of the thinking behind the administration’s peace plan.

Addressing the pro-settlement Kohelet Policy Forum’s celebration of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s November 18 declaration about the legality of Israel’s settlements, Friedman hinted at the likely contours of the proposal, which, according various reports, will recognize Israel’s sovereign rights over all of Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank, but also include a provision for Palestinian statehood, if several conditions are met.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, November 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

More specifically, the proposal is said to give Israel a green light to annex the Jordan Valley and possibly many, if not all, settlements.

In his speech, Friedman not only acknowledged that more than two million Palestinians live in the area, which he consistently refers to by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria. Perhaps surprisingly, he referred to these Palestinians as “indigenous,” thus refusing to endorse the talking point of many Israelis on the right who consider the Palestinian presence illegitimate and want to encourage their emigration.

Indeed, by calling Palestinians “indigenous” to this land, Friedman was implying that they, too, have rights to it.

In another hint at the deal’s parameters, the US top diplomat expressed his wish for Palestinians to “live in dignity, in peace, and with independence, pride and opportunity.” Independence, not autonomy.

During his speech on January 8, held at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Friedman addressed three “lingering issues” that have remained unsolved since the 1967 Six Day War: the status of Jerusalem, the status of the Golan Heights and the status of the West Bank.

US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman speaks during the Kohelet Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“We have approached them in ascending order of complexity,” he said, defending the administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

What follows is an excerpt from that speech in which Friedman discusses the one issue that is still on the table — the settlements in the West Bank:

And now we come to Judea and Samaria, certainly the most complicated of the issues because of the large indigenous Palestinian population. Balancing the security considerations against the freedom of movement, reconciling competing historical and legal narratives and entitlements, aiding the economy in the face of accusations of attempted normalization — it’s complicated and challenging.

But over the years, before we came into office, it’s only gotten more complicated and more challenging. The proverbial goalposts have moved and moved — to the point today where they are no longer even on the field.

Judea and Samaria — the name Judea says it all — is territory that historically had an important Jewish presence. As they say, it is biblical heartland of Israel.

PM Netanyahu, left, laying a corrnerstone for new housing units in Beit El, August 8, 2019 (Sharon Revivi)

It includes Hebron, where Abraham purchased the burial cave for his wife Sara; Shilo, where the tabernacle rested for 369 years before the Temple was built by King Solomon in Jerusalem; Beit El, where Jacob had his dream of the ladder ascending to heaven; Kasr al Yahud where Joshua led the Israelite nation into the Promised Land and John the Baptist baptized Jesus, and so many other famous locations.

After the Ottoman Empire fell, Judea and Samaria, as well as the rest of what was then referred to as Palestine , became subject to a British trust, which was subject to the Balfour Declaration, the terms of the San Remo conference and the League of Nations mandate. In simple terms, the British were obliged to facilitate settlement of the Jewish people in this land. That’s not to say that Jewish settlement was exclusive, that no one else had the right to live there. But Jews certainly did.

We then fast forward to 1967 and the Six Day War. After being attacked, Israel recovers Judea and Samaria from Jordan. Jordan had occupied Judea and Samaria for only 19 years and almost no one recognized its rights to the territory.

This file photo taken on June 5, 1967 shows Israeli airforce Dassault Mirage III fighters flying over the Sinai Peninsula at the Israeli-Egyptian border on the first day of the Six Day War. (AFP)

So, intuitively, who has a good claim to the land? Israel, whose historical and legal rights were recognized by the League of Nations; Jordan, which was there for only 19 years with virtually no legitimacy, and which, in any event, renounced its claim to territory west of the Jordan River in 1995, or the Ottomans who washed their hands of Palestine after World War II. The answer, with all due respect to all the scholars, seems obvious.

And because that was so obvious, the goalposts started to move. The Armistice Line of 1949 — a line to which the enemies of Israel agreed to hold until they re-armed and again sought Israel’s destruction (as they did in in 1973) — all of a sudden became the inviolate “Green Line,” the limit of Israel’s territorial entitlement.

Settlements became per se illegal under amorphous notions of international law that no one could seriously reconcile with San Remo or the League of Nations mandate.

And [United Nations Security Council] Resolution 242 became a mandate for Israel’s withdrawal from all captured territory, even though the resolution was heavily wordsmithed to avoid such an interpretation, and even though the US representative who negotiated 242, Yale Law School dean Eugene Rostow, has said that Israel has an unassailable right to settle in Judea and Samaria.

The Pompeo Doctrine does not resolve the conflict over Judea and Samaria. But it does moves the goalposts back into the field.

It does not obfuscate the very real issue that two millions or more Palestinians reside in Judea and Samaria, and we all wish that they live in dignity, in peace, and with independence, pride and opportunity. We are committed to find a way to make that happen.

The Pompeo Doctrine says clearly that Israelis have a right to live in Judea and Samaria. But it doesn’t say that Palestinians don’t. Rather, it calls for a practical negotiated resolution of the conflict that improves lives on both sides.

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