President Donald Trump has asked his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, to join a growing task force on Middle East peace, breaking from protocol that has traditionally removed the US envoy from talks with the Palestinian Authority.
Trump made the move because he trusts Friedman to represent him – a critical factor in all of the president’s decision-making, a White House official told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. But a Palestinian official on Monday said the PA does not want to host Friedman in Ramallah, reflecting the delicate politics that greet Friedman in his new role and the president at the start of his foray into Mideast peacemaking.
“The administration believes that in order to give everyone the best chance to reach an ultimate deal, it is critical to have negotiators who are close with the president,” the White House official said.
The US team working on Middle East peace is now led by three men who have surrounded the president for years: Friedman, his former lawyer; Jason Greenblatt, formerly executive vice president and chief legal officer at the Trump Organization now serving as the president’s lead negotiator; and Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law.
Greenblatt introduced Friedman to the Palestinians’ senior negotiating team in Jerusalem on Tuesday, accompanied by US Consul-General in Jerusalem Donald Blome.
A report by Wafa, the official PA news agency, said the Palestinian officials, who met with Friedman and Greenblatt at the King David Hotel, included chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, General Intelligence chief Majid Faraj, and President Mahmoud Abbas’s economic adviser Muhammad Mustafa.
The report added that the Palestinian officials expressed support for halting all settlement activity, which for them includes Jewish building in east Jerusalem, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Fatah Central Committee member Azzam al-Ahmad on Monday said in an interview on official PA television that the Palestinians are opposed to hosting Friedman in Ramallah.
“Tomorrow there will be a new round of talks with the Palestinian delegation in west Jerusalem, because we do not want one of the members of the [American] delegation to come to us... Why? Because he is the ambassador of America in Israel and the purview of his work is in Israel,” Ahmad said.
The interviewer then asked Ahmad if Friedman attending a meeting in Ramallah would send a political message.
“Of course,” he responded, without explaining what such a message would be.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert stated later on Tuesday that Friedman's addition to the team was actually "perhaps even an upgrade" for the Palestinians. Nauert made the statement, contradicting concerns voiced by al-Ahmad and others, during a daily press briefing.
The London-based Al-Hayat
reported in June that Abbas refused to welcome Friedman to Ramallah during senior Trump adviser Jared Kushner’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The Al-Hayat report said that Abbas did not want to host Friedman in the de facto Palestinian political capital because of his support for settlements.
Friedman has a history of supporting settlements including Beit El near Ramallah, where buildings bear his family’s name.
Although the White House is hesitant to call this a formal policy shift, it does represent a significant shift in the way Washington does business with the PA , as for nearly the last two decades the local US address for the PA has been the consulate in Jerusalem, and not the embassy in Tel Aviv.
For instance, former ambassador Dan Shapiro never once went to Ramallah during his five-plus years as ambassador, and did not join US special envoy for Israeli–Palestinian negotiations Martin Indyk in 2013-2014 during meetings when he was negotiating with the PA as part of US secretary of state John Kerry’s diplomatic push at the time.
“It’s a break from recent protocol but not unprecedented,” Indyk told the Post in an interview on Tuesday. “I think it’s good to expose Ambassador Friedman to Palestinian views, and vice versa.”
“It would also be good for Israelis to be exposed to Palestinian views,” Indyk continued, “so if he includes Ambassador Friedman on his team, Mr.
Greenblatt should also take the US Consul-General to the Palestinians, Donald Blome, to his meetings with Israeli officials.”
The general rule, according to a source who has been closely involved in the diplomatic process, is that the embassy in Tel Aviv and the US ambassador to Israel have responsibility for the Israeli government and the Israeli people, and the consulate and the consul-general in Jerusalem has responsibility for the PA and the Palestinian public.
The Palestinians, the source said, have in the past been concerned that dealing with the ambassador to Israel would symbolize some recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank. In addition, the source added that the Palestinians obviously like to have their own US representative and channel of communication, and not have it be a derivative of the US representative to Israel.
Greenblatt arrived in the region on Monday for an “interim visit” with Israeli and Palestinian officials. He visited the Kotel on Monday evening, where he prayed for “peace for all.”
Greenblatt is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, the security cabinet is set to discuss a plan to expand the municipal boundaries of Kalkilya beyond Area A, which, under the Oslo Accords is under Palestinian civilian and security control, and into Area C, which is under Israeli civilian and security control.
If approved, it would allow for up to 14,000 Palestinian homes to be built. That number includes the authorization of Palestinian homes that already exist, in places where the city has illegally spilled over into Area C.
The Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria is debating the plan, which already received security cabinet approval last year. But ministers who supported the plan, including Netanyahu, have said they did not realize its scope.
Under pressure from Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu agreed to bring the plan back to the security cabinet.
The vote is expected to be close and its opponents, including Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, spent Tuesday night trying to sway ministers to reject the proposal.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.
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