Friedman to 'Post': We need to strengthen Israel-US ties with peace plan

Diplomatic Affairs: Marking two years since the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, David Friedman talks about annexation, the peace process and rapprochement in the Gulf.

David Friedman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
David Friedman
If US President Donald Trump is reelected in November, David Friedman knows exactly which job he would like to take in the administration’s second term – the one he has now, ambassador to Israel.
After three years in the role, Friedman still feels that there is a lot left to be done to reinforce and strengthen the US-Israel relationship, starting with the Trump peace plan and bringing America’s allies in the region together to be allies with one another.
“We need to maximize mutual benefits of the relationship in ways I don’t think have happened before,” Friedman told The Jerusalem Post this week. “The only limits are one’s imagination as to where we can go.”
The Post sat down with Friedman for a lengthy interview to mark the second anniversary of the US Embassy’s move to Jerusalem in 2018, which the ambassador said has not only helped make peace possible but also highlighted an American value of making decisions based on what is just.
“We were applying a double standard to Israel, relative to every other country in the world,” he said. “We were telling Israel, you don’t have the right to choose your capital city.” The failure of past US governments to implement legislation that mandated the embassy’s transfer was not only a disappointment to Israelis, he said, but also to many Americans “who support Israel and see that the US was treating Israel differently, applying double standards, and basically saying that until the Palestinians agree, you can’t choose what your capital is. And it’s not just any capital; it’s Jerusalem.”
Friedman said that the first conversation he had with Trump about moving the embassy was before he was elected president, and that he was on board from the beginning of his term, with some officials predicting that he was going to announce the move the same day as his inauguration on January 20, 2017. That didn’t happen, Friedman said, because first conversations were needed in all of the different government offices – State Department, the Pentagon and more.
What did that achieve, though? we asked. Other countries have not followed suit, and the Palestinians appear to be farther away from negotiating a peace deal than before. In the end, we said, critics will argue that it was just a symbolic move that didn’t really change anything on the ground.
Friedman dismissed the notion. First, he said, there is a group of countries in Eastern Europe that is interested in making the move to Jerusalem. “We haven’t given up. There are a lot of countries that really want to. Eastern Europe is almost there. The EU works with a certain amount of discipline on its members, which makes it more complicated. I think it’ll eventually come, and when it does, it will be in a large number.”
In addition, he said, don’t underestimate the power of symbolism.
“Americans who support Israel understand the significance of Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s what the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, Plymouth Rock and Valley Forge are. We understand symbols are more than symbols. Every nation that made a mark on this world stood for something. Nations that stand for something stand for deep historic principles. Because America was founded on those types of principles, Americans profoundly understand the importance of Jerusalem to the State of Israel.”
Allowing Israel to retain these symbols – sites like Hebron, which Friedman said are in the Jewish people’s “biblical DNA” – is also an important element to the Trump peace plan.
WITH LESS than two months until the July 1 date that the coalition agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz set as the earliest date for annexation of West Bank settlements, biblical sites and the Jordan Valley, Friedman sought to set the record straight about the conditions for US support for the endeavor.
The ambassador is confident that Israel could annex the parts of the West Bank mentioned in Trump’s plan with US approval by July 1, but Israel is the one that has to make it happen, he said.
“We will be ready to address this issue if Israel is ready,” Friedman said. “Ultimately, as Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo said, it’s Israel’s decision. They have to decide what they want to do.”
The first condition is the completion of a map by the joint US-Israel committee, which began working in February. The committee met in recent weeks, Friedman said. It is on track to finish the mapping, pending “judgment calls in Israel’s court,” by July.
The second condition, about which there had been some confusion, is that Netanyahu pledge his commitment to Trump’s peace plan and all it entails, including freezing settlement activity outside the 30% of Judea and Samaria delineated by the mapping committee, and express a willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians to form a state in the rest of the West Bank.
“Netanyahu needs to communicate that to Abu Mazen,” Friedman said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “The expectation is that the prime minister will agree to negotiate, and if the Palestinians show up, he will negotiate in good faith, based on this plan.”
“I don’t see this as anything more than a commitment by the prime minister,” he said, adding: “As a new government is formed, it would be appropriate for [support for the Trump plan] to be re-upped by the leader and then to proceed in good faith on that basis.”
The Trump administration’s “vision for peace” would allow Israel to annex 30% of the West Bank, including all settlements – about half of Area C – and the entire Jordan Valley.
The plan would also would provide the Palestinians with a massive economic aid package and support their establishing a state, if they meet certain conditions, including demilitarization, instituting civil rights, stopping incitement, and ending their payment scheme for terrorists.
Friedman said he thinks Israel’s “commitment will endure through the rotation” for the premiership between Netanyahu and Gantz.
No vote in the cabinet or Knesset on allowing for a Palestinian state would be necessary, unless something came of the negotiations.
“I’m not going to prejudge what good faith means,” Friedman said.
Speaking of Palestinian recalcitrance, Friedman said: “That gave us two choices. Either move forward with support of one party, or we stagnate with support of no parties. Given that dichotomy, this was the choice we made.”
US support for settlement annexation is not contingent on the Palestinian response to Netanyahu’s willingness to hold talks, though Friedman expressed hope that the Palestinians would respond to an invitation for peace talks.
“If the Palestinians refuse to show up, I’m not sure what else the prime minister can do,” he said. “But I think there ought to be an unequivocal communication to the Palestinians that they are invited to negotiate in good faith on the president’s vision.”
Friedman pushed back against the criticism that moving the embassy to Jerusalem made peace less likely.
“In order to make that argument, you would have to say that during the 50 some odd years prior to the move of the embassy, the peace process was somehow bearing fruit, which it wasn’t,” he said. “On one level I would say [the embassy move] didn’t make it worse, because it couldn’t be worse. It wasn’t going anywhere. The process was moribund.”
In fact, Friedman argued, moving the embassy increases the chance of peace, saying that the time had come to “rip off the Band-Aid, let the wound benefit from some disinfectant, some sunlight, and stand on a principle of truth.”
Friedman also said the US recognition of Jerusalem sent an important message to the Palestinians.
“If you tell the Palestinians that no matter what happens, no matter how recalcitrant you are, no matter how malign your activities are, no matter how you fail to observe basic human rights for your own people – with all that, you still get to veto the rights of the Jewish people and the State of Israel and their unquestionable capital... it’s just the wrong signal,” he said.
In writing the peace plan, the ambassador said, the Trump administration was guided by the thought that “we have to build a structure that works off the realities – and this does.”
When it comes to moving the embassy, “we thought from day one that it would promote peace. I don’t know [when], but I think it’s the right signal,” Friedman said.
THE TRUMP administration also bucked the paradigm in American foreign policy thinking when it comes to its other allies in the Middle East. The question of how to treat US allies whose interests are hostile to Israel is a “balancing act of the past,” the ambassador said.
“We don’t jeopardize any of our relationships with any nations in the [Persian] Gulf by being pro-Israel,” Friedman argued. “It’s not a zero-sum game. There is great opportunity for all players in the region.... The Trump administration certainly looked at the world in that way from the beginning.”
Friedman said he’s “very optimistic” about stronger ties between Israel and Gulf states in the coming years, and that they will likely come collectively, from a group of countries, rather than one making the first step.
“That’s where we would want to go in a second term” for Trump, he said. “Allies with America could also be allies with each other; that’s the natural progression of the relationships.”
Friedman pointed out that it would have been easier to make progress on that front, had there been a stable government in Israel. More generally, Friedman said the equation of US-Israel relations needs to be flipped. Rather than Americans seeing themselves as helping Israel, they must realize how much Israel can do for the US – for example, by putting groundbreaking Israeli innovations on the market in the US first.
“One of the failings of the pre-Trump years has been that, in the first place, the American perspective on Israel was that they need a lot from us and what can we give them,” he said. “It was never how do we excel [together], how do we make ourselves stronger, better, more prosperous and more secure.”
Should Trump be reelected, there will be many more opportunities for deepening the connections between the US and Israel, Friedman projected.
“We definitely front-loaded a lot of the news into the first term,” Friedman said. “If there’s a second term, I think that’s when we start to go beyond that. We will be working really hard to convert the Trump vision into peace.” But, Friedman made sure to add: “We haven’t given up on the first term. We still have eight months.”