Furore over Friedman comments

David Friedman (left) with Benjamin Netanyahu in May 2018. Photo: EPA/Abir Sultan

PEACE activists and Palestinians are calling on Donald Trump to fire his ambassador to Israel, saying that he has green-lit West Bank annexation.

David Friedman is a “trojan horse of the settler right”, the Peace Now movement hit back after The New York Times published his comments on the West Bank. 

He was quoted as saying that “under certain circumstances I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank”.

His comments were widely interpreted as support for the current push by settlers for Israeli sovereignty to be applied to parts of the West Bank – despite the fact that Friedman insisted the US doesn’t have a stance on this possibility. 

“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 said. 

“These are all things that we’d want to understand and I don’t want to prejudge.”

West Bank sovereignty, often called annexation, is the rallying cry of the Israeli settler right – which managed to persuade Benjamin Netanyahu to endorse the plan before the April election. Netanyahu has just appointed a new Justice Minister, Amir Ohana, a right-winger from Likud who is believed to be open to setting the wheels in motion for annexation. 

Responding to the comments, Ibrahim Melhem, spokesman for the Palestinian government, labelled Friedman as “ambassador of settlements”, while Peace Now official Hagit Ofran told The AJN that Friedman should no longer represent the US in Israel. 

Ofer Cassif, Knesset member for the mostly-Arab party Hadash-Ta’al, wrote to Friedman asking him to revoke his comments. “In recent years,” Cassif claimed, “US intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only led to a worsening of the situation and prevented a just solution.”

Ofran said she is worried for the prospect of peace as, with Friedman’s comments, the US is spurning the basic assumption of all peace discussions since 2000. “All talks, official and unofficial, since Camp David of 2000, have used the 1967 borders as the basis,” she said. 

Ofran claimed that the Trump administration is systematically shutting down discussion on the key issues for negotiation, and in so doing making it harder to reach a deal. “They have been taking off the table the three key issues of the conflict,” she said. “Firstly, Jerusalem by moving the embassy, then refugees by signalling that in their opinion there’s no refugee problem, and now they are taking off the table the issues of settlements and annexation.”

The Israeli right was also claiming that the White House is breaking with the past – but for the best. The right-wing Sovereignty Movement, which has pushed hard to make West Bank annexation a mainstream enough idea for the likes of Netanyahu to be adopting, was delighted that the US has adopted “a policy that will bring stability, peace … and security”.

Friedman’s stance, said Sovereignty Movement activists, is a “natural” step now that the Trump administration has recognised Jerusalem as capital and moved the embassy there, and accepted Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.

Gilad Erdan, a government minister and Likud politician, praised the idea of annexation and said that the Trump Administration’s mindset is “the only one that could bring about change” and convince the Palestinians that boycotts and terror won’t bring them achievements.