Envoy Was Not Wrong on Israeli Settlements
By Eli Lake
week, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was widely thought to have
stepped in it.
his first televised interview he said: "I think the settlements are part of
Israel." He said that Israeli settlements comprise two percent of the West
Bank's territory. Explaining U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, adopted after
Israel won the six-day war, Friedman said,
"The existing borders, the 1967 borders were viewed by everybody as not
secure. So Israel would retain a meaningful portion of the West Bank -- and it
would return that which it didn't need for, you know, peace and security."
words caused a stir, to put it mildly. Americans for Peace Now, a group that has
helped the U.S. government monitor the expansion of Israeli settlements, called
on Friedman to be fired. Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to the Palestinian
Authority president, recorded an angry video denouncing the U.S. ambassador.
"This alleged ambassador of the United States has absolute ignorance of
facts of law of the position of the United States," he said, according to a dispatch from
Noga Tarnopolsky in the Los Angeles Times. State Department spokeswoman Heather
Nauert said last week that Friedman's remarks do not reflect a change in U.S.
is correct. They don't. While Friedman was imprecise, the gist of what he said
has more or less been U.S. policy for some time. The major Jewish population
blocks in and around Jerusalem will remain part of Israel in any final status
deal to create a Palestinian state. The two sides have negotiated land swaps for
more than 20 years to make up for the West Bank territory Israel is expected to
seems clear that Israel will keep some West Bank territory," said Elliott
Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush and
is currently a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There will be
land swaps in any conceivable final status agreement. That is U.S. policy.
Ambassador Friedman said nothing that deviates from that policy."
is in a position to know. He helped to negotiate the process by which Israel
under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005. As
part of that negotiation, Bush wrote
a letter to Sharon, later endorsed by a congressional resolution, that
acknowledged: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already
existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the
outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the
armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state
solution have reached the same conclusion."
got trickier under President Barack Obama. While the president publicly
acknowledged that there should be land swaps between Israel and the
Palestinians, he also asserted that
negotiations should start by assuming that all territory Israel won in the 1967
war would be part of Palestine.
one of Obama's final acts as president, the U.S. broke precedent and abstained
from a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned all Israeli population
blocks beyond the 1949 armistice lines. By abstaining, the U.S. tacitly
indicated its opinion that the settlement blocks Bush said should be expected to
remain in Israel were illegal under international law.
senior U.S. official who works on Middle East peace negotiations told me that
Friedman's remarks reflected a traditional Republican view of settlements,
namely that it was unrealistic to expect Israel to relinquish the suburbs in and
around Jerusalem as part of a final status deal with the Palestinians.
of that said, it's understandable the ambassador's remarks ruffled feathers.
Before his posting in Israel, Friedman as a private U.S. citizen was an
outspoken advocate for the settlements. He has helped raise
millions of dollars for the Beit El settlement through his
organization, American Friends of Beit El Institutions.
more, Friedman's language was imprecise. When asked whether some settlements on
the West Bank would have to go in a final deal, he responded, "Wait and
see." Also, his figure that Israeli settlements only take up two percent of
West Bank land ignores Israeli military bases or for that matter Israeli
Friedman's position, by his experience and background, cannot meaningfully
address the requirements of the Israelis and Palestinians," Aaron David
Miller, a former senior U.S. peace process negotiator and now a scholar at the
Woodrow Wilson Center, told me.
the end this is a conversion of a formula the Palestinians will not accept,”
he said. “If this is someone else, it's just careless language and not
precise. But not in this case."
of the ambassador's interview, the president has said he wants to resolve the
conflict. U.S. officials tell me that last month in his discussions with Middle
East leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, Trump reiterated his personal
commitment to pursuing a peace deal. Friedman will help to broker that deal if
peace negotiations are ever revived. If that day comes, Friedman will have to
choose his words with more care.