'We've given the Palestinians 3 or 4 years to get there'

US envoy explains deal’s asymmetry: We trust Israel, but PA can’t keep a bargain

Why does Trump’s plan allow the Israelis to annex soon but have a Palestinian state only arise in four years? To ‘bridge the asymmetry’ between the two sides, David Friedman says

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addressing a briefing hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, February 9, 2020 (Reouven Ben Haim/JCPA)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addressing a briefing hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, February 9, 2020 (Reouven Ben Haim/JCPA)

The White House’s so-called “Deal of the Century” strongly favors Israel because it is a democracy that can be relied upon to uphold any agreement, whereas the Palestinians have a long way to go before they are trustworthy partners, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said Sunday.

Critics of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan often complain that it grants Israel the right to soon annex the parts of the West Bank that the proposal earmarks for Israel to retain, while the Palestinians would only get their state at the end of four years — and then, only if a long list of conditions have been meet.

If the plan is meant to eventually lead to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, why is one side allowed to take the spoils right away, while the other side has to wait four years, The Times of Israel asked Friedman during a briefing Sunday at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

In his answer, the US envoy spoke of the need to bridge the “asymmetry” between the State of Israel, which is a dependable ally, and what he described as the failed wannabe state that is the Palestinian Authority. He also argued that Jerusalem would have never have made the concessions it did upon accepting the plan’s outline — including agreeing not to build any new settlements in the areas designated for a future Palestinian state — if it had not been granted the right to quickly annex the parts envisioned to be part of Israel.

US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in an announcement of Trump’s Middle East peace plan in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on January 28, 2020. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

“This is a completely asymmetric relationship,” Friedman said of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “Israel is a democracy. You can hold it to its word. It has an enormous relationship with the United States on multiple levels and that relationship is very solid. It is in a position today to keep its part of the bargain.”

By contrast, the Palestinians are currently “not in a position to keep any bargain,” Friedman said. “The Palestinians are not united. Their government is not democratic. Their institutions are weak. Their respect for all types of norms that we hold dear — not just democracy but human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of the press — is nonexistent.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds a placard showing maps of (L to R) ‘historical Palestine,’ the 1947 United Nations partition plan on Palestine, the 1948-1967 borders between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel, and a current map of the Palestinian-controlled territories without Israeli-controlled areas and settlements, during an Arab League emergency meeting discussing US President Donald Trump’s peace proposal, at the league headquarters in the Egyptian capital Cairo on February 1, 2020. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

The White House felt the need to “bridge that asymmetry,” he went on. “If Israel is ready today, why shouldn’t they get what they’re agreeing to today? If the Palestinians are going to be ready in four years, well, then they can get what they can get in four years.”

The only way to encourage the Israelis into agreeing to adopt the Trump plan and to freeze settlement building in the area earmarked for a future Palestine was to “provide them today with what they’re entitled to in exchange for that,” Friedman posited.

“I have no doubt that Israel would never agree to a naked freeze of four years just on the possibility that the Palestinians might a) be willing to negotiate and b) achieve the milestones [required of them by the plan]. We just couldn’t have gotten it,” he said.

The administration took great care to tell the Palestinians that they don’t have to say yes or no to the plan right away, Friedman said.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addressing a briefing hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, February 9, 2020 (Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)

“We understand that you’re in a very difficult position — you’re not united, you have numerous streams of conflict that weaves around your body politic. So take your time, digest it, and you will not be penalized by the passage of time,” he said, addressing the Palestinian leadership.

“If it takes you three or four years to get there, the territory that is earmarked for you, the integrity of that territorial opportunity, will be preserved.”

Israel has never agreed to a four-year freeze of settlement construction, Friedman stressed. The only previous moratorium of settlement expansions — for 10 months — took place during the Obama administration and “was a waste of time,” he claimed, since it did not succeed in bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

For Israel to annex the part it will keep now in exchange for refraining from taking more of the territory reserved for Palestine is a formula that “seemed like a very fair trade — for us, for the Palestinians and for Israel,” Friedman said.

The Times of Israel also asked Friedman what happens after four years — will Israel get a green light to apply sovereignty over the remaining parts of the West Bank if the Palestinians have still not engaged on the proposal?

Not necessarily, Friedman replied.

“At the end of four year years, if there is no progress and no basis to extend that period of time — and that would be an extension the parties themselves would have to agree to — then it would return to what it is today,” the ambassador said.

The areas Israel will not have annexed by then would continue to be administered by COGAT, the Defense Ministry unit currently in charge of implementing Israeli government policies in the West Bank, according to Friedman.

There is no specific event that would automatically occur at the end of the four years that started on January 28, when the peace plan was unveiled at the White House, he said. “Hopefully there would be another initiative,” he added.

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