U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman appears to have opened a major can of worms in the wake of an interview earlier this month in The New York Times.
Friedman said that “under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”
Friedman used the term retain, not annex, as the Times said in both its headline and the lead of the article, and not “applying sovereignty,” a term which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used ahead of Israel’s April elections when he talked about the West Bank and its communities.
Let’s be clear, even on a good day, Friedman is not the most diplomatic of diplomats. He has clearly bought into the vision of Netanyahu’s Israel and he lets people know it.
But, as the Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon pointed out, Friedman was a practicing attorney before he was tapped to be ambassador, and he “understands the significance of words.” Which is why he said retain and not annex. Because unilateral annexation of territory conquered in war – making it a part of your country – is contrary to international law.
Retaining territory, until serious negotiations over its status are concluded, is fair game.
I live on some of that retained territory, though the popular wisdom is that much of the land on which Karnei Shomron is built from was purchased from its Palestinian owners by local celebrity Moshe Zar, who began purchasing land as far back as 1979, and has the deeds to prove it.
Everything about my life here is Israeli. I vote in Israel’s elections; I pay taxes to Israel; my children attended local Israeli schools; I ride Israeli public transportation; the roads I drive on to get to Israeli cities were built by Israel; my landline comes from the Israeli phone company Bezeq and my cell phone service comes from an Israeli carrier; I watch Israeli television on my Israeli satellite service that technicians came out to install; my electricity comes from the national electric carrier; I attend programs in our community center which is sponsored by the Mifal HaPayis, Israel’s national lottery; I pay my mortgage which was granted to me by an Israeli national bank and I could go on.
Which is why for me and some of my neighbors the semantics of annex and retain might not be uppermost in our minds on a day-to-day basis.
And Friedman, discussing a possible retention of West Bank territory in the framework of the Trump administration’s long-touted Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, did actually hedge – which already makes him sound like more of a diplomat.
“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 told the Times. “These are all things that we’d want to understand, and I don’t want to prejudge.”
Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East and a chief architect of the yet-unveiled peace plan alongside Trump’s Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner, on June 16 backed up Friedman, telling The Jerusalem Post conference in New York that “I will let David’s comments stand for themselves. I think he said them elegantly and I support his comments.”
Israel has not, throughout the months of talking about the peace plan, presented a plan for annexing any part of the West Bank, according to several news outlets citing an unnamed American official.
And, Ron Kampeas, my colleague at JTA where I work, recently pointed out, the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations all envisioned Israel retaining parts of the West Bank, albeit under a peace agreement and with mutual land swaps adding up to a small percentage of territory.
So the question is, did Friedman say anything that is all that bad or contrary to U.S. policy?
I wonder how an annexation would play out. Is there a way to annex the Israeli communities in the West Bank while leaving the Palestinian ones under the control of the Palestinian Authority? If we also are annexing the Palestinian villages around us without making their residents citizens, it would be the death knell of the democracy which is so important to us.
I am curious to see what the Trump administration has come up with vis a vis its peace plan. And while it is clear that the Palestinians have decided to reject it out of hand, as evidenced by their refusal to attend the economic peace summit next week in Bahrain, it could one day become a starting point or at least talking points, for a real negotiation.