What is Donald Trump’s policy towards Israel and the Palestinians? No one from within the president’s administration seems able to say.
During an interview with an Israeli news site, David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, advanced views contradicting decades of US policy, as well as the professed positions of the administration.
The State Department’s response to his comments further suggests a foreign policy in total disarray.
Asked about Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank, Friedman told Walla! News: “I think the settlements are part of Israel. I think that was always the expectation when Resolution 242 was adopted in 1967.”
Friedman, Trump’s longtime bankruptcy lawyer, was referring to a Security Council resolution which, in fact, emphasizes “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and calls for Israel’s withdrawal from territory occupied in the 1967 War.
Friedman’s interpretation directly contradicts numerous subsequent resolutions that explicitly reaffirm the illegality of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.
Israel’s transfer of its civilian population to territory it occupies is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and is thus a war crime.
Friedman, incidentally, is a major bankroller of one such settlement.
The ambassador downplayed the settlements, stating, “I mean, they’re only occupying two percent of the West Bank.”
He was wildly off mark.
The reality is that Israel has a massive settlement colony infrastructure throughout the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. More than half of the West Bank has been confiscated for the settlements or otherwise prohibited to Palestinians.
For decades US policy has been to view the settlements as an obstacle to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And last December, the US allowed the Security Council to pass a resolution restating that all the settlements are illegal.
But US verbal opposition to the settlements has never been matched by deed: successive administrations kept writing blank checks to Israel while the settlements kept expanding.
Friedman’s comments represent a complete upheaval of that policy, however toothless it may have been.
Asked by Walla! whether he would ever bring himself to utter the words “two-state solution” out loud, Friedman said that the phrase has lost any meaning because “it means different things to different people.”
As to what it means to him, Friedman shrugged it off. “It doesn’t mean, I’m not sure. To me, I’m not focusing on labels, I’m focusing on solutions,” he said.
“Did he go rogue?”
During Thursday’s press briefing, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert struggled to reconcile Friedman’s comments with the policy of the administration he represents.
Nauert’s exchange with journalists can be watched in the video above.
“His comments – and I want to be crystal clear about this – should not be read as a way to prejudge the outcome of any negotiations that the US would have with the Israelis and the Palestinians. It should also not indicate a shift in US policy,” Nauer states.
“Did he go rogue?” one reporter asks.
“This is at least the second time that from this podium you’ve had to sort of clean up Ambassador Friedman’s remarks when he had upped the ‘alleged occupation,’” another reporter says, referring to a comment Friedman recently made to the right-wing Jerusalem Post suggesting the US does not consider the West Bank and Gaza to be occupied by Israel.
“Even if it’s not a change of position, is the perception that the ambassador to Israel has his thumb on the scale in the view of this conflict creating problems for the US?” the reporter adds.
“We have some very effective leaders and representatives for the US government, including Jason Greenblatt [and] Mr. Kushner, who are spending an awful lot of time in the region,” Nauert replies, referring to two of Trump’s advisors.
Associated Press reporter Matt Lee points out that “The problem arises because [Friedman] is the Senate-confirmed ambassador. Neither Greenblatt nor Kushner are. … Ambassadors to every country are supposed to speak for and with the authority of the president of the United States. Do you not see that causing confusion?”
Another reporter presses the point: “Aren’t you a bit concerned that the ambassador’s comments are detracting or going to harm the efforts by the president’s appointed envoys on this issue?”
They’re fair questions to ask. During the interview Friedman behaved as though he is Israel’s ambassador to the US, rather than the US ambassador to Israel.
Friedman insisted that the Trump administration will move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – another break from decades of US policy and international consensus.
That was a promise made during Trump’s campaign but later backtracked once he took office.
Asked whether the embassy will be moved during Trump’s presidency, Friedman replied, “I sure hope so. That was one of the commitments of the president and he’s a man who keeps his word. … It’s not a question of if, but a question of when.”
Friedman stated that a peace deal may be reached in months but would not share any details of the parameters of the supposed peace negotiations.
Asked about Palestinian distrust due to his financing of settlements, the ambassador boasted of meeting with Majid Faraj, the head of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’ secret police force, and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
“I think they understand my views,” Friedman said, adding, “I don’t think it’s a matter of being suspicious, I think they have dealt with people who have those views before.”
Though he says that Trump is the one calling shots in his inner circle, Friedman’s reference to “my views” further suggests that the ambassador is operating on a long leash.
But he still behaves as Trump’s lawyer.
Asked by Walla! about Trump’s much maligned defense of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last month that left a counter-protester dead, Friedman replied:
“I have no doubt that he is not the slightest bit in any way, shape or form racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, homophobic or any other horrible adjective you can come up with. It’s not him.”