'I mean, they're only occupying 2% of the West Bank'

US ambassador says ‘settlements are part of Israel’

David Friedman’s comments draw angry response from Palestinians, who accuse him of changing US positions and ‘absolute ignorance of facts and laws’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman during an interview with Walla News on September 28, 2017. (Screen capture/Walla News)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman during an interview with Walla News on September 28, 2017. (Screen capture/Walla News)

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said Thursday that West Bank settlements “are part of Israel” and that the two-state solution “is not a helpful term” and “has largely lost its meaning,” drawing an angry response from the Palestinians.

Speaking in an interview broadcast on the Walla news website, Friedman was asked for his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to speculate on the Trump administration’s plans moving forward on the issue. Some of his answers largely contradicted long-held US positions.

“I think the settlements are part of Israel,” Friedman said, giving a historical overview of the process since Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War. “I think that was always the expectation.”

“When Resolution 242 was adopted in 1967, it was, and remains today, the only substantive resolution that was agreed to by everybody…, the idea was that Israel would be entitled to secure borders… The 1967 borders were viewed by everybody as not secure,” he said, referring to the UN Security Council Resolution of November 1967, which said that Middle East peace should include “[w]ithdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

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)

“So Israel would retain a meaningful portion of the West Bank, and it would return that which it didn’t need for peace and security,” Friedman said.

“There was always supposed to be some notion of expansion into the West Bank, but not necessarily expansion into the entire West Bank; and I think that’s exactly what Israel has done.

“I mean, they’re only occupying two percent of the West Bank,” he elaborated, seemingly referring to the the built up area of settlements beyond the Green Line. Israel maintains civil and military control of the entirety of Area C, which makes up roughly 60% of the West Bank, and control of all the borders.

The ambassador added that he saw “important security… nationalistic, historical and religious significance to those settlements; and I think the settlers view themselves as Israelis, and Israel views the settlers as Israelis.”

Asked if some of the settlements would have to “go down” in a future peace deal with the Palestinians, Friedman responded, “Wait and see.”

Referring to the two-state solution, Friedman said the concept “has largely lost its meaning, or at least has a different meaning to different people.” He argued that the term has been exploited by so many to the point where it is no longer useful.

The two-state solution, with an independent Palestinian state along side a secure Israel, has long been the preferred outcome of successive US administrations, who have also been opposed to Israeli settlements.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (2nd-L), President Reuven Rivlin (3rd-L), First Lady Melania Trump (C-L), US President Donald Trump (C-R), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-R) and Sara Netanyahu (2nd-R) seen at Ben Gurion International Airport during a ceremony marking the American president’s departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Asked when Israelis could expect the White House to put forward a peace initiative, Friedman speculated that there would be one “within months.” However, he qualified his statement, saying “we’re not holding ourselves to any deadline rule. We’ll try and get it done right, not fast.”

After being pushed to confirm whether progress has been made by the Trump administration, the ambassador said yes.

Friedman was a controversial pick for ambassador, largely due to his views on the settlements and derogatory comments he made about left-wing Jewish groups for which he subsequently apologized. Friedman was a major donor to the settlement of Beit El and had said that Israel can annex the West Bank and retain its Jewish character

The Palestinians condemned his comments Thursday.

“It is not the first time that Mr. David Friedman has exploited his position as US ambassador to advocate and validate the Israeli government’s policies of occupation and annexation,” said senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is currently in the US awaiting a lung transplant.

“His latest statement about Israel “occupying only 2% of the West Bank” declaring that “Israeli settlements are part of Israel” is not only false and misleading but contradict international law, United Nations resolutions and also the historical US position,” Erekat said, adding that “Israel is internationally recognized as the occupying power over 100% of Palestine.”

“Such positions undermine ongoing efforts towards achieving a just and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine on the 1967 border,” he said.

Another senior Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath, said Friedman “showed absolute ignorance of facts and laws.”

Much of the international community views West Bank settlements as illegal and has frequently tried to pressure Israel to halt construction beyond the Green Line. The Palestinians say the settlement enterprise is one of the major obstacles to reaching a peace deal. Israel says most settlements are legal under Israeli law — though Israel has never extended its sovereignty over the West Bank.

Responding to Friedman’s comments, the Kerem Navot settler watchdog group said the ambassador was “reinventing US policy toward the settlement issue.”

The NGO’s Thursday statement called on Friedman to go on a “study tour” of the West Bank.  “If he would do so, he would understand that Israel occupies 100% of the West Bank and spending huge amount of effort to spread the settlements into the entirety of Area C.”


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