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US Embassy briefly includes West Bank and Gaza in Twitter handle, sparking storm

Change occurs after Trump ambassador David Friedman relinquishes account, but is swiftly reversed; spokesman says it was not indicative of policy shift

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Twitter Account of US Embassy in Israel briefly includes the West Bank and Gaza in its title on January 20, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)
Twitter Account of US Embassy in Israel briefly includes the West Bank and Gaza in its title on January 20, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)

The US Embassy in Israel briefly changed its Twitter account name to include the West Bank and Gaza, sparking an immediate storm on the social media network by many who wondered whether it represented a policy shift on President Joe Biden’s first day in office.

The @USAmbIsrael account’s name changed to “US Ambassador to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza” around noon in DC (7 p.m. in Israel), when Biden was sworn in as president and David Friedman, a political appointee of former president Donald Trump, officially stepped down from the post.

A short time later it reverted to “US Ambassador to Israel” and a spokesman for the embassy told The Times of Israel that the changes “did not reflect a policy change or indication of future policy change.”

But by the time the account was amended, it had already been widely reported and speculated upon in the Israeli press.

During Friedman’s tenure, the American mission was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On March 2019, the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, which had served those living in the West Bank and Gaza, was shuttered and folded into the embassy in Jerusalem, which was under Friedman’s jurisdiction, effectively making him the ambassador to all three territories.

Friedman, a long time ally of the settlement movement who never had significant relations with the Palestinian Authority, did not refer to himself as “Ambassador to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza,” though his authority did indeed extend to all three areas once the East Jerusalem Consulate was shuttered.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman dedicates the US embassy courtyard to Jared Kushner on December 21, 2020 (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Critics of Biden, such as Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida, quickly accused the new administration of showing “hostility to Israel.”

“There is no country of West Bank or Gaza, only territories that Israel has been willing for decades to negotiate sovereignty over but has been met with only hostility and terrorism,” he tweeted.

Other right-wing and pro-settler commentators asserted that the name change represented a US policy shift.

Trump, with the help of Friedman, took a number of steps to normalize Israel’s presence in the West Bank. The Trump administration ceased criticizing Israeli settlement building, unveiled a peace plan that envisioned Israel annexing all of its settlements, revoked a legal opinion deeming them illegal, launched a policy requiring all US exports from the settlements to be labeled as “Made in Israel” and extended scientific bilateral cooperation to the settlements.

However, it did not go as far as officially recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank or give its blessing to annexation of the settlements.

The brief name change also angered some Palestinians, who don’t want the West Bank and Gaza to be under the same auspices as Israel.

“Have we been reduced to the West Bank and Gaza? Not even the courtesy of the occupied Palestinian Territories, which is in accordance with int’l law?” tweeted Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy executive director Salem Barahmeh. “Shame on us if we expect any more from this administration. Shame on us for letting our national project get to this point.”

Less than two hours after it was first changed, the embassy account dropped West Bank and Gaza from its name. The account bio still specifies that the Unit for Palestinian affairs is under its purview.

Biden has declared his intention to restart relations with the Palestinian Authority, which Ramallah severed after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but the Wednesday name change appeared to have been a mistake by an embassy staffer, rather than action representative of a day-one shift in policy.

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