On June 2, 2019, Jared C. Kushner, the Trump Administration’s Middle East policy czar and chief architect of its highly publicized “deal of the century,” cast personal doubts on the Palestinians’ ability to govern themselves. In a revealing––and broadly viewed as disastrous––interview with AXIOS on HBO, the president’s son-in-law stated that the issue of self-governance for the Palestinians is “a very good question … The hope is, is that over time, they can become capable of governing.” Kushner conceded in the same interview that the Palestinians “should have self-determination”; however, he insisted that granting the Palestinians freedom from Israeli occupation is “a high bar,” explaining that they “need to have a fair judicial system … freedom of press, freedom of expression, tolerance for all religions” before the Palestinian territories, from his patronizing and colonial perspective, can become “investable.”
Friedman’s New York Times Interview
Barely a week after Kushner’s infamous interview, US Ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman took another condescending shot at the Palestinians by declaring that “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” The Friedman statement, coming on the heels of Kushner’s neocolonial and arrogant remarks, was preceded by broad-ranging recommendations he made to the Trump Administration that were taken to heart by the White House. These included cuts in aid, including humanitarian assistance, to the Palestinians, the abrupt elimination of US funding of UNRWA projects, and the 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel. He also recommended dropping the word “occupied” from official US references to the Palestinian territories and lobbied Washington to refer to them as “Judea and Samaria” as well as closing the PLO office in Washington in 2018. All of these contributed to depicting the US administration as “the gift that never stops giving,” particularly in the eyes of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners in Israel.
The Friedman statement, coming on the heels of Kushner’s neocolonial and arrogant remarks, was preceded by broad-ranging recommendations he made to the Trump Administration that were taken to heart by the White House.
Although Friedman was extremely cautious about using the term “retain” instead of “annex” in reference to Israel’s right vis-à-vis “some portion” and “unlikely all” of the West Bank, his ultimate intentions were quite clear as he hesitantly offered some details. He is quoted in the same NYT interview as stating, “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.” Mr. Friedman continued: “These are all things that we’d want to understand, and I don’t want to prejudge.”
Regarding the West Bank, he concluded unequivocally that “Certainly Israel’s entitled to retain some portion of it.”
Ambassador David M. Friedman, as Winston Churchill described Russian actions in 1939, is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” He is a controversial American Jewish bankruptcy lawyer affiliated with the Trump Organization who was chosen by President Donald Trump in 2017 as US ambassador to Israel, despite widespread opposition to his nomination by liberal American Jews and others based on his anti-peace and pro-settlement views and activism. Progressive Jewish leaders never forgave Friedman for referring to J Street members as “far worse than kapos,” in reference to Jewish lackeys of the Nazis during World War II. Indeed, some progressive Jewish organizations, like Americans for Peace Now (APN), did not hesitate to condemn his annexation remarks and boldly called on President Trump to fire him.
Friedman has had a long history of affiliation with extremist American Jewish causes and radical Israeli political groups associated with the settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territories, deemed illegal under international law. For many years, he headed and contributed to American Friends of Bet El Institutions, a pro-settler organization committed to opposing the two-state political option between Israel and Palestine. Bet El is an Orthodox Jewish settlement, with its own share of legal controversy, located in the heart of the occupied West Bank northeast of Ramallah with an estimated population of 6,500 illegal settlers. Therefore, it was not surprising when Freidman and fellow Trump attorney Jason D. Greenblatt issued a joint public statement on November 2, 2016, committing that “The U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state and Mr. Trump’s Administration will move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.” Changing longstanding US policy vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine has always been part of their common political agenda.
Friedman has had a long history of affiliation with extremist American Jewish causes and radical Israeli political groups associated with the settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territories, deemed illegal under international law.
Yet, despite his friction with a significant segment of the Jewish community, or possibly because of it, Friedman was appointed by Trump, during the 2016 presidential campaign, as co-chair of his Israel Advisory Committee and personal advisor on American Jewish affairs. Friedman promptly joined fellow lawyer Greenblatt, former executive vice president and legal counsel at the Trump Organization, and Kushner as the de facto Middle East kitchen cabinet for the campaign and, subsequently, the newly elected administration.
Broad Condemnation Except by Israeli Right
Reaction to Friedman’s comments about the right to annex parts of the West Bank was quite vehement on the Palestinian side but somewhat tepid internationally, including ambivalent responses in Washington and some European capitals.
The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized Friedman as “ignorant in political work and belongs to the state of settlers.” The ministerial statement emphasized that “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. We are studying whether his racist rhetoric is sufficient to file a complaint against him with the International Criminal Court for trying to impose his racist visions and threatening peace and security in the region, as well as exposing the Palestinian people to several dangers and conspiracies.”
PLO Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi described Friedman’s annexation claim as “direct incitement against the Palestinian people … filled with lies that aim at justifying the Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people.” Chief Palestinian Negotiator and Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee Saeb Erekat emphasized that Friedman’s words would constitute “an annexation of occupied territory, which is a war crime under international law.”
Friedman’s annexation remark was also condemned by the ruling Fateh Movement in Ramallah as a “flagrant violation” of international law. In its public statement, Fateh emphasized that “The Palestinian leadership is committed to peace, but not at any price; to a just, comprehensive and lasting peace on the basis of international law, [UN] resolutions and the principle of a two-state solution that Friedman now is avoiding.” Hamas followed with a statement of its own stating that Friedman’s remarks “vindicated further the depth of the US administration’s complicity in the aggression against the Palestinian people and their national cause.” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem stressed the need for a united Palestinian position to confront the US efforts.
On the Israeli side, the reaction on the left was also extremely critical of Friedman. Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg stated that “As long as Friedman is the U.S. ambassador in Israel and not in a settler state, he must know that annexation would be a disaster for the State of Israel. The ambassador is not here to assist Christian settlements that work to thwart the possibility of peace and security without occupation.” Her Palestinian colleague Ayman Odeh, representing the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al faction in the Israeli Knesset, insisted that “The only solution that would guarantee security and dignity to Israelis and Palestinians is the end of the occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian country alongside Israel. Unilateral annexation is a war crime.”
Israeli right-wing Likud politicians, however, who typically endorse unilateral annexation or extending Israeli law to the West Bank like Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi and Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin automatically praised Friedman’s statement. Erdan commented 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.” Hanegbi made it quite clear that “The position of the majority of the Israeli society is that any future agreement will be based on having our control over Judea and Samaria unchanged.” Elkin was quite blunt in articulating Israel’s interpretation of Friedman’s words, which, according to him, “show a public readiness even among international officials, including in the US, to [accept] Israel’s intention to declare sovereignty over significant areas of the West Bank, if not all of it.”
Franky, this backtracking by the State Department is meaningless diplomatic doublespeak since the administration deems Friedman’s statement as in harmony with past US policy regarding territorial swaps discussed in past Palestinian-Israeli talks.
As far as the official position of the Trump administration is concerned, CNN reported that the US Department of State appeared “to push back on Friedman comments.” The report quoted department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus as saying that “the administration’s position on the West Bank has not changed,” despite Ambassador David Friedman’s comments to The New York Times. Franky, this backtracking by the State Department is meaningless diplomatic doublespeak since the administration deems Friedman’s statement as in harmony with past US policy regarding territorial swaps discussed in past Palestinian-Israeli talks. Therefore, diplomats at Foggy Bottom were still able to claim that US policy vis-à-vis the West Bank has not changed and that “No plan for unilateral annexation by Israel of any portion of the West Bank has been presented by Israel to the US, nor is it under discussion,” as an anonymous US official told the press.
Political Implications of Friedman’s Remarks
Under normal circumstances, remarks made by Friedman might not have left any serious impact on American policy in the region. Diplomats have been ignored in the past, particularly with regard to Arab-Israeli matters. However, taking into consideration Netanyahu’s declared intention on April 6, 2019 to annex parts of the West Bank, Friedman’s personal proximity to President Trump and his membership in the “Middle East peace troika” at the White House, any objective analysis of the issue requires taking his words seriously. His words were well chosen and are already impacting US credibility and the prospects of potential US-sponsored political talks in the region.
First and foremost, Friedman’s remarks meant the ultimate demise of the two-state solution, long-perceived as the most practical political settlement for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Supporters claim that repeated attempts at peacemaking in the Middle East have failed miserably over the years; therefore, it’s high time for change. However, although change is often commendable in the face of long-term stalemate, change for the sake of change, particularly when it’s founded on untested and half-baked ideas, doesn’t guarantee success either.
Friedman’s remarks meant the ultimate demise of the two-state solution, long-perceived as the most practical political settlement for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Second, Friedman’s annexation pronouncement is in clear violation of international law, specifically, the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war, enshrined in UNSC Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967. Losing its five-decade-long grounding in international legitimacy makes the search for Middle East peace doubly difficult and not easier or more promising in the future.
Third, Friedman’s remarks about the West Bank prejudged the outcome of several final status issues meant to be settled through direct negotiations between the parties. These include permanent borders, Jewish settlements, and the status of Jerusalem, among others. By taking this biased position on behalf of the Trump Administration, Ambassador Friedman disqualified his administration, and probably succeeding administrations, from future mediation possibilities.
Fourth, peace talks in the Middle East over the past three decades have clearly failed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; however, they have succeeded in producing a widely accepted set of terms or diplomatic parameters that served as reference points for future attempts, should such conversations resume. Friedman’s remarks gutted those terms of reference and rendered them obsolete to the detriment of potential comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the region.
Finally, availing parts of the West Bank for Israel to annex or to unilaterally absorb under its sovereignty contradicts the declared intentions of the Trump Administration about the region’s future. Kushner and Greenblatt have spent the past few months telling the world that their economic plans for the region, to be revealed in Bahrain on June 25-26, are simply a prelude to some political outcome in the future. Giving away the West Bank, in whole or in part, to Israel exposes those promises as a big lie.