Israel has not presented a plan for annexation of any of the West Bank, nor is any such plan under discussion with the US, an American official said Saturday, following remarks by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman in which he said he believes the Jewish state has the right to annex at least “some” of the disputed territory.
“No plan for unilateral annexation by Israel of any portion of the West Bank has been presented by Israel to the US, nor is it under discussion,” a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. Israel’s Channel 12 indicated the official was from the US State Department.
The official was quoted by Hebrew news site Ynet as saying, furthermore, that the US administration’s position on settlements has not changed. 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.
In an interview published by The New York Times on Saturday, Friedman said that some degree of Israeli 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,” the ambassador 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.
His remarks infuriated the Palestinians, who accused Friedman of becoming a “spokesman for the settlers.”
Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and top Palestinian negotiator, said Friedman’s remarks proved that the Trump’s administration was heavily biased in favor of Israel and that the Palestinians were justified in choosing to boycott an economic conference in Bahrain later this month where Washington is set to unveil the first phase of a long-delayed peace plan.
Another Palestinian official, Mustafa Barghouti, called Friedman a “spokesman for the settlers,” Haaretz reported, and said his comments amounted to “chutzpah.”
“President Trump’s ambassador provides enough background in order for everyone not to attend the Manama meeting: Their vision is about annexation of occupied territory, a war crime under international law,” Erekat tweeted on Saturday.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party also accused Friedman of promoting measures that were in “flagrant violation” of international law and various UN resolutions.
“The Palestinian leadership is committed to peace, but not at any price; to a just, comprehensive and lasting peace on the basis of international law, [UN] resolutions and the principle of a two-state solution that Friedman is now avoiding,” the party said in a statement carried by official PA news outlet Wafa.
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 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. The US 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.
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 favorable to 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 PA, 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.”
Public comments made by US administration officials so far suggest the peace 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.