WASHINGTON – Ambassador David Friedman’s remarks to The New York Times earlier this week, in which he said that Israel has a “right” to retain part of the West Bank, caused quite a bit of confusion in Washington. Like in a Rorschach test, different people saw different things in that interview.
Some argued that Friedman is setting the stage for the annexation of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Others saw these remarks as a nonissue, given that Israel and the Palestinians negotiated many times in the past on mutually agreed swaps that would leave the settlements blocs as is.
That the White House, for the most part, stayed quiet on this issue – apart from a vague statement that “the policy has not changed” – just sharpened the question: What is the actual policy of the peace team?
The peace team was indeed ready – twice – to reveal the details of the “Deal of the Century,” but had to back off due to two election cycles in Israel. However, the fact is that 30 months have passed since Trump entered the White House, and there is still no clear indication as to the administration’s vision. As the Trump administration prepares for next week’s Bahrain conference aimed at supporting the Palestinian economy, the issue could create a further obstacle among the already reluctant participants.
“I understood that that was not shutting the door on annexation, but it would be highly situational,” David Makovsky, the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations, told The Jerusalem Post
“He didn’t say that the US would accept that either,” he added. “The other element is that Israel is now entering a second election round. And what we do know is that Trump is viewed as someone who’s trying to help Netanyahu, as we saw with the Golan recognition that was done on the eve of an election. So [Friedman] doesn’t want to sound at all like he’s at odds with Netanyahu before the 2019 election in Israel and before the 2020 election in America.”
According to Makovsky, a discussion about annexation is premature. “Some context is required here. I don’t think that Netanyahu at this point is on the verge of any annexation. The issue seems somewhat theoretical at this moment. He’s been prime minister for 13 years, and never has he put forward [a proposal for] annexation.”
“The only time is 48 hours before the election. He appeared in a makeshift television interview. And he suddenly put this forward. In America, this was viewed as a declaration of intent. I have a different reading. My reading is that it’s not a coincidence that for 13 years, he never put this forward. And suddenly on the eve of an election, he somehow pulls this political rabbit out of his hat, because he was focused on pulling the rug out from under two of his rivals on the Right, the New Right Party and Feiglin. And the truth is, by [Netanyahu] co-opting some of their arguments, those two parties did not cross the threshold. As soon as it achieved its objective, he stopped talking about it. But in America, the issue took on a life of its own, more than it did in Israel; because in Israel, people think that politicians use political expediency all the time on the eve of elections, and they’re not as surprised.”
He explained that given the close relations between Netanyahu and Trump, it is unlikely that the former would surprise the latter. “Netanyahu is not going to preempt Trump. I don’t think we’re at the verge of any big decision. Will the administration put forward a peace plan? If Abbas says no to that plan, then Netanyahu [would] ask Trump to reconsider supporting, giving at least the yellow light, if not a green light, to some selective annexation, maybe in blocs that even on the Palestinian maps would be Israeli. I think it’s possible. There’s a lot of ‘ifs’ based on this.”
AMBASSADOR DENNIS ROSS is a former special assistant to president Barack Obama, is the counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute. In a conversation with the Post, he agreed that “the timing [of Friedman’s interview] was probably not great from the standpoint of trying to affect what will go on in Bahrain. If you wanted to make it more likely to try to find a way to draw some Palestinians in, the timing was probably not one that made it easier to do that.”
However, Ross clarified that Friedman’s words were ambiguous. “If you actually read what he said, it doesn’t come across as if he’s advocating [annexation].”
When asked what could explain the fact that the White House stayed quite regarding Friedman’s remarks, Ross said that “this is an administration that does not want to say or do anything that could be used against Netanyahu. And I suspect they would have felt that if they’d come out and said something on the record against it, that that might’ve been seen as contradicting Netanyahu’s own position in the context of what he said during the campaign.”
Another significant development is the announcement by Egypt and Jordan that they would send a delegation to Bahrain. Ross says that we should wait and see who is representing each country.
“You may have these countries simply send their local ambassadors. You need to wait to see what the level is going to be. If the level is low, that also is a political signal. They don’t want to do something that the administration would view as being hostile, but they obviously have their own political equities that they’re going to protect. I would still pay close attention to what the level of representation is going to be.
“If Bahrain turns into something that looks to be successful,” he added, “that’s a pretty powerful message to the Palestinians, that you’re not going to be in a position to veto what others believe is important to do. If the outcome is different from that, then it sends a contradictory message.”
DAN ARBELL is a scholar in residence at American University in Washington, DC. He told the Post that Arab countries decided to engage in the workshop because they need the administration’s help with many issues.
“I think that they’re taking it one step at a time. And I think that what’s motivating them to show up in Bahrain is to be on Trump’s good side and not upsetting the Trump administration. Jordan, Egypt, Morocco – they all need the Trump administration for different issues, bilaterally. And so they’re willing to play along and participate in Bahrain, while not necessarily being happy with Friedman’s comments, but putting it on the side and focusing on the Bahrain workshop, as a tool that perhaps would be helpful for the Palestinians in the future. I think they chose to separate between Friedman’s comments and their need to attend.”
Eugene Kontorovich is a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School of George Mason University and a scholar at the Kohelet Policy Forum. He told the Post: “I think everybody has always understood that in any future scenario, of course, Israel would retain parts of Judea and Samaria. There has been absolutely no other realistic plan or scenario.”
Kontorovich says that the vital part in Friedman’s interview is the phrase that Israel “has a right” to annex. “He didn’t say that it requires the agreement of the Palestinians. I think that’s a truly remarkable thing.”
“Israel has a sovereign claim on the territory, and it doesn’t depend on whether I’m getting permission from the Palestinians,” Kontorovich continued. He added that there is “recognition by the administration that the Palestinians have been saying no for decades, and they cannot hold the future development of this region hostage forever by simply saying no. And that recognition is that the Palestinians are unique because they are the only national liberation movement that is forever saying no” to any proposal.
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