The US ambassador to Israel said he believes the Jewish state has the right to retain at least “some” of the West Bank, in comments likely to deepen Palestinian opposition to a long-awaited US peace plan.
In an interview published by the New York Times on Saturday, Ambassador David Friedman indicated that some degree of annexation of the West Bank would be legitimate.
“Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank,” he said.
Friedman said the Obama administration, by declining to veto and thus allowing passage of a United Nations resolution in 2016 that condemned Israeli settlements as a “flagrant violation” of international law, had given credence to Palestinian claims “that the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem belong to them.” To the contrary, he said, “Certainly Israel’s entitled to retain some portion of it,” he said, referring to the West Bank.
During campaigning for the general election in April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to gradually annex all West Bank Jewish settlements, a move long supported by nearly all lawmakers in his alliance of right-wing and religious parties, and said he hoped to do so with US support.
Friedman, in the New York Times interview, declined to specify how the US might respond to unilateral Israeli annexation, saying: “We really don’t have a view until we understand how much, on what terms, why does it make sense, why is it good for Israel, why is it good for the region, why does it not create more problems than it solves… These are all things that we’d want to understand, and I don’t want to prejudge.”
In December 2017, US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It moved its embassy, headed by Ambassador Friedman, to the city in May 2018. In March, shortly before Israeli general elections, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. Also in March, for the first time, the Trump administration ceased to refer to the West Bank as “occupied” in the State Department’s annual report on human rights around the world.
The US is set to lay out an economic component of its long-awaited Mideast peace plan on June 25 and 26 in Bahrain, where Gulf Arab states are expected to make pledges to boost the troubled Palestinian economy.
But it is not clear when the political aspects of the plan — which is expected to avoid calling for the creation of a Palestinian state — will be unveiled.
Abandoning the call for a Palestinian state would end years of US support for the so-called two-state solution, which envisages an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Asked by the New York Times whether the Trump plan would provide for Palestinian statehood, Friedman responded: “What’s a state?”
The Palestinians have already dismissed the Trump peace plan and said they will not attend the Bahrain summit, rejecting it as heavily biased in favor of Israel.
Friedman said “There’s more blame on the Palestinian side” for the failure to resolve the conflict to date, while allowing that Israel had “made its own mistakes” too. “There were some extraordinarily generous proposals made to the Palestinians that they turned down,” he said.
He castigated the Palestinian Authority, citing its “very, very poor track record on human rights” and said its institutions “don’t give anyone in the region sufficient comfort that Palestinian autonomy is not threatening… The Palestinian leadership is really the difficulty right now.”
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat has said any Israeli annexation policy would be tantamount to “US complicity with Israeli colonial plans.”
‘Failed state helps nobody’
The public comments made by administration officials so far suggest the US plan will lean heavily on substantial financial support for the Palestinian economy, much of it funded by the Gulf Arab states, in return for concessions on territory and statehood.
“The absolute last thing the world needs is a failed Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan,” Friedman said in the Times interview.
“Maybe they won’t take it, maybe it doesn’t meet their minimums.
“We’re relying upon the fact that the right plan, for the right time, will get the right reaction over time.”
Friedman, a staunch supporter of the Israeli settlements, told the Times that the Trump plan was aimed at improving the quality of life for Palestinians but would be unlikely to quickly enable a “permanent resolution to the conflict.”
Friedman said the plan would not be released at all if the administration concluded it would do more harm than good. “We don’t want to make things worse… Our goal is not to show how smart we are at the expense of people’s safety.”
He said he did not believe the plan would trigger Palestinian violence.
But he said the United States would coordinate closely with Arab ally Jordan, which could face unrest among its large Palestinian population over a plan perceived as overly favorable to Israel.
Publication of the plan already looks set to be further delayed after the Knesset called a snap general election for September, the second this year.
The plan is regarded as too sensitive to release during the campaign.
Meanwhile, Trump administration officials have been dampening expectations about the peace plan rollout. Senior White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner in an interview broadcast Sunday expressed doubts about the Palestinians’ ability to govern themselves without Israeli involvement. “The hope is that over time, they can become capable of governing,” he told the Axios news site.
On Monday, the Washington Post published leaked remarks made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told US Jewish leaders in a closed-door conversation that the plan might not “gain traction.”
When asked about Pompeo’s skepticism, Trump told reporters outside the White House: “He may be right.”