Friedman's ‘controversial’ comments do not diverge from traditional U.S. policy

Why? Because in an interview with the New York Times, Friedman said, “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”

June 11, 2019 04:12
4 minute read.
Friedman's ‘controversial’ comments do not diverge from traditional U.S. policy

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during an event with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at Carasso Science Park in Beersheba, Israel December 20, 2018. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)


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Haaretz said on Monday that US Ambassador David Friedman represents the settler Right, Peace Now called for his immediate dismissal, and the Palestinian Authority – whose leader once referred to him as the “son of a dog” – said it was weighing whether his “racist rhetoric” was grounds to file a complaint with the International Criminal Court.

Why? Because in an interview with The New York Times, Friedman said, “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”

Friedman neither said the word “annex” nor “unilateral” in the interview, but all of a sudden his words were taken as if the Trump administration had suddenly given Israel a green light to annex the West Bank, something that Netanyahu put squarely on the agenda in the days leading up to the April 9 election when he said this was something he might consider.

Friedman also did not say how much of the West Bank Israel could retain. “Some” of the West Bank could range from the Western Wall to all of Area C.

The ambassador’s remarks came during a “wide-ranging” interview with the Times, and it is safe to assume that he neither knew exactly which questions he would be asked – though he probably had a good idea, considering this was not his first interview – nor that his remarks were cleared in advanced by the White House.

In the ensuing brouhaha, the White House clarified that its policy had “not changed.”

Which raises an even more important question: what is the US policy on annexation? What would it do if Israel unilaterally annexed any part of Judea and Samaria?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been asked this question repeatedly over the last number of weeks – twice in Senate hearings immediately after Netanyahu’s pre-election comments, and once in a meeting two weeks ago with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that was leaked to the press. And in each of those cases his answer was the same: everyone will see what the US vision is when the “Deal of the Century” is rolled out. To the Presidents Conference he articulated the hope that any decision toward annexation of territory would wait for the roll out of the plan.

Friedman, following Pompeo’s lead, was also vague about how the US would respond to annexation.

“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,” Friedman said. “These are all things that we’d want to understand, and I don’t want to prejudge.”

In short, the US has not articulated any policy regarding annexation – neither pro nor con – and that is actually the only new element here, because in contrast to previous administrations that indicated that unilateral annexation is unacceptable under any circumstances, this administration is not saying publicly that this is something that it is completely unacceptable.

At the same time, it is also not saying that unilateral annexation would be something that Washington accepts – and that is also not something Friedman said in his interview.

Moreover, Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, pointed out that by saying that Israel has the right to retain some of the territories taken in the Six Day War, Friedman was not breaking with traditional US policy, which was that Israel would withdraw from territories, but not all the territories, taken during the war.

Gold cited a number of instances which indicated that this was the US policy. For instance, this was the crux of the debate between Washington and Moscow during the drawing up of UN Security Council Resolution 242 following the war, with the US stubbornly insisting that the resolution call for a “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” not “all the territories” or even “the territories.” The language accepted implied that Israel would retain some territories so that it has “defensible borders,” another term that became a key part of US Middle East policy.

Twenty-three years later, US president George H.W. Bush opened up the Madrid Conference speaking of the need for territorial compromise, and not a full withdrawal from all the territories.

And his son, George W. Bush, wrote in his famous letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population 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.”

For Friedman to say that Israel will retain an unspecified amount of territory is, therefore, not a fundamental break from US policy. What is worth looking into, on the other hand, is how and why over the years the idea that Israel will have to withdraw from all the territories acquired during the Six Day War has become so axiomatic, when that was not the intention of many US administrations, going back to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967.

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