Last week, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was widely thought to have stepped in it.
In his first televised interview he said, “I think the settlements are part of Israel.” He said that Israeli settlements comprise two percent of the West Bank’s territory. Explaining U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, adopted after Israel won the six-day war, Friedman said: “The existing borders, the 1967 borders were viewed by everybody as not secure. So Israel would retain a meaningful portion of the West Bank — and it would return that which it didn’t need for, you know, peace and security.”
These words caused a stir, to put it mildly. Americans for Peace Now, a group that has helped the U.S. government monitor the expansion of Israeli settlements, called on Friedman to be fired. Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to the Palestinian Authority president, recorded an angry video denouncing the U.S. ambassador. “This alleged ambassador of the United States has absolute ignorance of facts of law of the position of the United States,” he said, according to a dispatch from Noga Tarnopolsky in the Los Angeles Times. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said last week that Friedman’s remarks do not reflect a change in U.S. policy.
Nauert is correct. They don’t. While Friedman was imprecise, the gist of what he said has more or less been U.S. policy for some time. The major Jewish population blocks in and around Jerusalem will remain part of Israel in any final status deal to create a Palestinian state. The two sides have negotiated land swaps for more than 20 years to make up for the West Bank territory Israel is expected to retain.
“It seems clear that Israel will keep some West Bank territory,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush and is currently a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There will be land swaps in any conceivable final status agreement. That is U.S. policy. Ambassador Friedman said nothing that deviates from that policy.”
Abrams is in a position to know. He helped to negotiate the process by which Israel under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005. As part of that negotiation, Bush wrote a letter to Sharon, later endorsed by a Congressional resolution, that acknowledged: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations 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, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”
Things got trickier under President Barack Obama. While the president publicly acknowledged that there should be land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians, he also asserted that negotiations should start by assuming that all territory Israel won in the 1967 war would be part of Palestine.
In one of Obama’s final acts as president, the U.S. broke precedent and abstained from a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned all Israeli population blocks beyond the 1949 armistice lines. By abstaining, the U.S. tacitly indicated its opinion that the settlement blocks Bush said should be expected to remain in Israel were illegal under international law.
A senior U.S. official who works on Middle East peace negotiations told me that Friedman’s remarks reflected a traditional Republican view of settlements, namely that it was unrealistic to expect Israel to relinquish the suburbs in and around Jerusalem as part of a final status deal with the Palestinians.
That said, it’s understandable the ambassador’s remarks ruffled feathers. Before his posting in Israel, Friedman as a private U.S. citizen was an outspoken advocate for the settlements. He has helped raise millions of dollars for the Beit El settlement through his organization, American Friends of Beit El Institutions.
What’s more, Friedman’s language was imprecise. When asked whether some settlements on the West Bank would have to go in a final deal, he responded, “Wait and see.” Also, his figure that Israeli settlements only take up two percent of West Bank land ignores Israeli military bases or for that matter Israeli checkpoints.
“David Friedman’s position, by his experience and background, cannot meaningfully address the requirements of the Israelis and Palestinians,” Aaron David Miller, a former senior U.S. peace process negotiator and now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told me.
“In the end this is a conversion of a formula the Palestinians will not accept,” he said. “If this is someone else, it’s just careless language and not precise. But not in this case.”
Regardless of the ambassador’s interview, the president has said he wants to resolve the conflict. U.S. officials tell me that last month in his discussions with Middle East leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, Trump reiterated his personal commitment to pursuing a peace deal. Friedman will help to broker that deal if peace negotiations are ever revived. If that day comes, Friedman will have to choose his words with more care.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.