US Ambassador David Friedman.
(photo credit: MATTY STERN/US EMBASSY JERUSALEM)
The big news over the long Shavuot weekend was the interview US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman gave the New York Times.
Friedman, a longtime advocate of the settlement enterprise, told the Times’s bureau chief David Halbfinger that “I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”
Anyone who has monitored the ups and down of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since the Oslo Accords would hardly be surprised by Friedman’s statement. Peace plans and two-state solutions that have been proposed, from Camp David and Wye to Clinton and Obama, have all been based on the foundation that any solution based on 1967 lines would include adjustments to reflect the reality of the sizeable Israeli population in Area C settlements – mainly the Gush Etzion bloc, Ariel and the Ma’aleh Adumim region.
What caused a buzz this time, though was that Friedman didn’t state that the annexation of parts of the West Bank needs to be part of a negotiated settlement that leads to a Palestinian state. Many of the reports used the term ‘unilateral’ even though neither Friedman nor the Times report used that term to describe any Israeli annexation scenario.
The interview raised a storm, with the Palestinian Authority Foreign Ministry and several Palestinian groups strongly condemning Friedman’s comments, and threatened to file a complaint against him with the International Criminal Court
“Friedman is ignorant in political work and belongs to the state of settlers,” the ministry said. “Friedman’s remarks are an extension of the US administration’s policy, which is fully biased in favor of the occupation and its expansionist colonial policies. The remarks of the settler Friedman expose the truth about him and his ideas, as well as those of his settler peers.”
The usual suspects like J Street and Peace Now called to fire Friedman over his inability to act as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians. The White House issued a statement that there had been no change in US policy regarding the West Bank.
Everyone had something to say about Friedman except, it seems, Israel. Likud members like Gilad Erdan, Tzachi Hanegbi and Ze’ev Elkin all praised Friedman’s statement with Erdan saying that “the world view of the Trump administration, which was expressed by Ambassador [David)]Friedman, is the only one that might bring about a change.”
But an official statement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was nowhere to be seen or heard. Maybe it’s because the prime minster, after years in charge, still has not decided what he wants to do with the West Bank.
Netanyahu pledged just prior to the April 9 election to extend Israeli law to all West Bank Jewish communities but that was election rhetoric aimed at swiping votes away from the far-Right parties running for the Knesset.
In reality, there is no formulated Israeli policy on the issue. Even with the across-the-board support the Trump administration is giving to Israel, as exemplified by Friedman’s statements, Netanyahu hasn’t made an official decision if unilateral moves is the direction he wants to go in and whether it will be good for Israel.
Any solution to the stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians will have to come from the parties themselves, not from support or opposition coming from outside sources, be they the US or the EU.
Unilateral moves can result in chaos, vacuums of power and more violence – just look at the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon and from Gaza and the strengthening of Hezbollah and Hamas. They can also help move forward a long-term solution.
Either way though it is not Friedman who needs to decide what Israel should do. He is not the one holding the keys to the door. Israelis deserve to hear from their leadership about the vision it has for the thorny issue, not in the context of political posturing, but in the realm of a long-term solution that will be in the best interest of Israel.
Unilaterally extending Israeli law over large sections of the West Bank or annexing part of the area without being part of a regional agreement are some of the options on the table. Netanyahu should tell us what he wants.
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