US envoy says he was misquoted about Washington wanting to replace Abbas

Ambassador David Friedman clarifies it is for the Palestinian people to decide who should be their leader

US ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the 6th Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism conference at the Jerusalem Convention Center, on March 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
US ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the 6th Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism conference at the Jerusalem Convention Center, on March 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

US ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Thursday clarified comments he made during a media interview in which he appeared to suggest that Washington was ready to replace Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“I was misquoted in various reports stemming from an interview that published today,” Friedman tweeted. “The United States is not seeking ‘to replace’ Mahmoud Abbas. It is for the Palestinian people to choose its leadership.”

In a rare interview directly criticizing the Palestinian leadership, Friedman had seemed to indicate that the White House’s patience with Abbas was running out, and had warned that if Abbas refused to negotiate with Israel and the Americans, others would.

“If Abu Mazen is not interested in negotiating, I am sure that someone else will want to,” Friedman was quoted as saying, in an interview with the weekly religious-Zionist newspaper Shevi’i, referring to Abbas by his moniker.

“If Abbas creates a vacuum, I am convinced that someone else will fill it, and then we will move forward [with the peace process],” Friedman continued. Parts of the interview were released on Wednesday; the full interview will be published on Friday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sits in front of a picture of the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 19, 2018. (FLASH90)

It appeared to be the starkest American admission yet of disillusion with the Palestinian leader since Abbas cut off all contact with Friedman and the US negotiating team after US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in a December 6 speech in the White House.

Some Palestinian officials have said that the Trump administration was delaying the announcement of its Middle East peace plan because it believes the proposal would have a greater chance of success after a new leader replaces Abbas is delaying.

There has been no official contact between Ramallah and the White House since then, and Trump’s peace proposal, which he has described as the “deal of the century,” has yet to be unveiled.

Abbas, 83, has so far shown no signs of relinquishing power. There have been no elections in the Palestinian Authority since 2006 despite Abbas’s term officially expiring in 2009.

Relations between the Palestinian leadership and Friedman have been hostile for a while.

Last week, the Palestinian Authority called for Friedman to be added to a “global terror list” as it stepped up its war of words with the American envoy, days after Abbas denounced him as a “son of a dog” and “settler.”

Earlier in the month Abbas launched a scathing attack against Friedman, hours after Friedman criticized the PA on Twitter for failing to condemn a pair of terror attacks.

Mentioning  Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his plan to move the country’s embassy in Israel to the city, Abbas said Trump “views the settlements as legitimate.”

US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas pose for a photograph during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

“More than one official has said that,” he added. “The ambassador, David Friedman, said they’re building on their own land. You son of a dog, building on their own land?! You are a settler and your family are settlers!”

Reacting to the comment while at an anti-Semitism conference in Jerusalem, Friedman quoted the insult, using the term “son of a bitch,” and added “Anti-Semitism or political discourse? I leave this up to you.”

Friedman is known for making comments aligning himself with the Israeli right wing, as well as for supporting projects in settlements.

In a recent interview Friedman said 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.”

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 still retain its Jewish character.

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