Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty is a “model for coexistence” among the three major monotheistic religions, the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said Monday.
At a panel discussion in the capital, the envoy also said intelligence cooperation between the two countries has saved American lives. At the same time, he expressed concern over young Americans’ weakening connection to Israel.
“When you think of the conflicts that have raged over centuries, and now you look at Jerusalem under the sovereignty of the Israeli government, how it’s been able to maintain the openness that it’s had — rather than a place of conflict, it’s actually the model for coexistence in the world,” Friedman said at an event to mark Israel’s 70th birthday held at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center.
His comments came less than a month before the US Embassy will formally relocate from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that is welcomed by Israel, opposed by much of the international community, and has particularly enraged large parts of the Muslim world.
The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967 and subsequently annexed, as the capital of a state they seek to establish.
US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, and the subsequent embassy decision, sparked deep anger among the Palestinians, who have cut off cooperation with administration officials and accused Friedman and peace envoy Jason Greenblatt of effectively being Israeli government spokespeople.
“Most people think of Jerusalem as a place of conflict,” Friedman said at the event, which was attended by many foreign ambassadors stationed in Tel Aviv.
“The Old City of Jerusalem is all of one square kilometer, and yet it houses the most holy places for two of the three major religions and a very holy place for the third,” he went on.
“And Jerusalem over the past 51 years now has become a place like it’s never been before. It’s a place where people who want to worship at the Kotel [the Western Wall], al-Aqsa [mosque] or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre all can do so with freedom of worship, most of the time without fear of violence. And that’s a model for the world to appreciate. People don’t appreciate it enough.”
Last year, an Israeli attempt to put security cameras near al-Aqsa after two Israeli officers were killed in a terror attack at the site sparked days of violent protests in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and across the Muslim world.
When Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced the planned relocation of the embassy there on December 6, he did not mean to “inflame those who were disappointed with his decision,” his envoy said. Rather, the president wanted to “extend an olive branch to all major religions and all worshipers, to see Jerusalem as the opportunity, the pinnacle of an opportunity, for people to live in peace.”
Friedman’s comments triggered immediate criticism from one ex-US negotiator.
“It is stunning that Israelis and Palestinians have managed for many reasons not to blow the place up. But a model for coexistence?” wrote Aaron David Miller, a veteran peace negotiator for several US administrations. “If history teaches anything about Jerusalem, it’s that the city is not to be shared; but to be possessed in the name of one’s god; tribe; nation.”
It is stunning that Israelis and Palestinians have managed for many reasons not to blow the place up. But a model for coexistence? If history teaches anything about Jerusalem, it's that the city is not to be shared; but to be possessed in the name of one's god; tribe; nation.
— Aaron David Miller (@aarondmiller2) April 23, 2018
An official dedication ceremony for the US Embassy in Jerusalem will be held on May 14 — the civil date of Israel’s 70th birthday.
“Initially, the interim embassy in Arnona will contain office space for the ambassador [Friedman] and a small staff. By the end of next year, we will complete the construction of additional office space in the Arnona compound that will provide the ambassador and his team with expanded interim capacity,” a US Embassy official told The Times of Israel last week.
Friedman, who owns a home in Jerusalem, will “continue to divide his time between his official residence in Herzliya and a residence in Jerusalem during the initial phases of the embassy move, as this is a multi-year process,” the official said.
During Monday’s panel discussion, Friedman hailed the robust ties between Jerusalem and Washington, indicating that Israeli intelligence had prevented terror attacks that would have killed American citizens.
“The United States benefits tangibly now from this relationship with Israel. There are things I cannot say in this forum, but there are people in the United States today who are safe, who are alive, because of intelligence cooperation that Israel has provided to the United States,” he said.
Friedman, who recalled that he celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall shortly after the 1967 Six Day War, said that his primary concern when thinking about the future of US-Israel relations was that “people in my country, especially kids, especially Jewish kids, find a way to reconnect more to Israel. Because I do fear that we’re at risk for not having the same kinds of connection, that me and wife had, that our kids have. And it’s a shame.”
Asked about Israel’s achievements in technology, Friedman jokingly noted that he had to sell his private investments in the country when Trump appointed him to be his envoy.
“One of my greatest disappointments of being an ambassador was I had to give up all my investments in Israeli companies,” he said. “I had to sell them and some of them I had to sell too soon because the State Department told me I can’t own any more businesses in Israel.”
ישראל לא תאפשר למשטרים שחותרים להשמדתנו להשיג נשק גרעיני.
Israel will not allow regimes that seek our annihilation to acquire nuclear weapons. pic.twitter.com/18iVXdfQFZ
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) April 23, 2018