US envoy says Trump understands why Israel needs to hold West Bank

David Friedman tells AIPAC a future administration won’t cotton to the risks for Israel of giving up security control of the territory

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington on March 26, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington on March 26, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)

WASHINGTON — US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman warned American Jews on Tuesday that a future administration won’t understand Israel’s need to maintain security control over the West Bank, suggesting that US President Donald Trump won’t force Israel to relinquish the territory that Palestinians envision as their own in a future state.

The Trump White House will continue to pursue a Middle East peace accord, Friedman told a crowd of 18,000 at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual confab, because the president’s successor won’t be sensitive to Israel’s security challenges.

Such an administration, he said, won’t recognize “the existential risk to Israel if Judea and Samaria are overcome by terrorists,” using the biblical terms for the West Bank. He emphasized Hamas’s seizure of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s withdrawal in 2005.

What’s more, he added, it won’t internalize that “in the Middle East peace comes through strength, not just through words on a paper.”

While he didn’t explicitly refer to a Democratic alternative to Trump, Friedman said that a future administration could be “potentially willing to penalize Israel for having the audacity to survive in a dangerous neighborhood.”

“We will continue to work with the Israeli government, with the Palestinians, with other regional players,” he said, acknowledging that there will be “some turbulence along the way.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main election rival Benny Gantz are committed to maintaining overall Israeli security control in the West Bank — positions that rule out fully independent Palestinian statehood.

Friedman, a former Trump attorney who has a history of financially supporting West Bank settlements before assuming his diplomatic post, celebrated the president’s recognizing the Golan Heights as sovereign Israel on Monday, with Netanyahu by his side at the White House.

“For two generations, Israelis of all political stripes proclaimed: ‘The nation is with the Golan,’ which can never be severed from the State of Israel,” Friedman said Tuesday. “Without the high ground of the Golan, Israel is exposed to extraordinary risks from treacherous enemies. This will never happen on President Trump’s watch.”

US President Donald Trump (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embrace prior to signing a Proclamation on the Golan Heights in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, March 25, 2019. David Friedman is at left. (SAUL LOEB/AFP)

In remarks after the White House event on Monday, Netanyahu said the US recognition underlines “one important principle in international relations: When you start wars of aggression, and lose territory, don’t come back and claim it later. It belongs to us.” In further comments on his journey back to Israel Tuesday, the prime minister appeared to hint at possible future West Bank annexation, saying: “Everyone says it is impossible to hold an occupied territory, and behold — it is possible if it is ours in a defensive war.”

In his AIPAC address, the US ambassador also addressed the firing of a rocket by Hamas terrorists into central Israel, injuring at least seven Israelis.

That rocket, Friedman said, was not aimed at Orthodox, Reform, or conservative Jews, it was not aimed progressives or conservatives, Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews. “That rocket was designed just to kill Jews,” he said, in an attempt to urge Jewish unity. “We can learn much from that rocket. It cared not a whit about the differences among Jews. Let’s put our differences aside in favor of our common goals, now and always.”

Friedman endured a tumultuous confirmation battle in 2017, as left-wing American Jewish leaders excoriated his past writings, in which he said the liberal Jewish group J Street was “worse than kapos” — Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps — and lambasted liberal Jewry for advocating policies that, he said, would put the Jewish state at risk.

In his confirmation hearing, he apologized. “These were hurtful words,” Friedman said, “and I deeply regret them.”

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