1. Ambassador Friedman kicks the hornet’s nest
It took only one comment by U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman in a New York Times interview to turn the world of Middle East peacemaking on its head. Asked about the possibility of Israel annexing all or parts of the West Bank, Friedman voiced surprising openness to the idea. “Under certain circumstances,” he told the Times, “I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” He then added, referring to the future of the territory that “certainly Israel’s entitled to retain some portion of it.” Reactions to Friedman’s comments came in fast, and some were furious. The Palestinians described Friedman’s statement as a “threat to regional peace and security” and warned they would consider filing a complaint against the envoy with the International Criminal Court. In the Israeli political system, Friedman’s comments were embraced warmly by right-wing politicians. “There’s a public ripening and even among international bodies, including the U.S., that in the end, Israel intends to extend sovereignty to not insignificant parts of Judea and Samaria, if not the whole area,” Cabinet Minister Ze’ev Elkin said.
The uproar, and, for that matter, the exaltation, are well deserved. Friedman’s comments are a clear break from long standing American policy and could mark a start of a new era in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic, had viewed the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as occupied territories that will serve as home to the Palestinian state, once circumstances allow its formation. Israeli annexation of the territory was viewed as an unwelcome unilateral step that would pre-judge the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Does this mean the U.S. has never before supported Israeli sovereignty over any part of the West Bank? Not at all. All previous administrations since Clinton had agreed to the concept of a limited land swap, under which Israel will retain some of the West Bank (anywhere between 3%-10%) in return for equal sized lands it will give over to the future Palestinian State. But this is very different than annexation, which would include Israel permanently taking hold of land without any agreement with the Palestinians.
2. Did Friedman go rogue?
It’s easy to think that Friedman was expressing his own personal pro-settler views rather than channeling American official policy.
During his confirmation hearings, and ever since settling in the embassy office in Tel Aviv, which he promptly moved to Jerusalem, Friedman has never made a secret of his views. While still living in New York and working as a bankruptcy lawyer, Friedman supported the settlements and served as a lay leader of the Beit El settlement’s fundraising arm. He questioned the inevitability of a two-state solution, and has referred to the dovish pro-Israel lobby J Street as “worse than kapos.” He also led an internal campaign within the State Department to drop the use of the term “occupied territories” when referring to Judea and Samaria.
Friedman clearly stands to the right of America’s foreign policy mainstream. He’s likely also to the right of most Trump administration officials and is probably closer in his views to the settler-oriented political parties in Israel than he is to Netanyahu’s Likud party. But Friedman is also a talented, smart diplomat who has demonstrated a deep understanding of how the administration works and of the boundaries that limit freewheeling policy. In other words, Friedman wouldn’t make such a statement to The New York Times in an on-record interview (as opposed to a casual comment made between friends) without knowing it would be welcomed, or at least accepted, by the administration.
3. Or maybe Friedman is the harbinger of a new American policy
Friedman broke with tradition, but expressing support for Israeli annexation of territory is only one step removed from current Trump administration policy. The past two years have seen a major shift in Washington’s policy regarding the Middle East conflict. Trump, his son-in-law and peace negotiator Jared Kushner, and special envoy Jason Greenblatt have all but walked away from the two-state solution. The idea that once served as the bedrock of American policy in the region is now absent from any official statements or policy plans. The Trump administration does not view the future of the region as one necessarily made up of two independent states living peacefully side by side. Instead, it seems to be just fine with some kind of an improved status quo in which Palestinians will enjoy more economic opportunities and will see improvement in their daily lives, but without any attributes of national self determination.
Once this principle has been established, accepting partial Israeli annexation is only one step away, perhaps a trial balloon meant to test international reaction, testing out what is soon to become official U.S. policy.
4. Netanyahu stands to gain the most from Friedman’s statement
Before the latest round of elections in Israel, Netanyahu took a step to the right, stating that he would consider partial annexation after the elections. This promise helped him cement the support of his right-wing coalition partners. That, of course, was not enough to form a new coalition, and Netanyahu is now facing elections again. Friedman’s statement could help the struggling Israeli PM deal with criticism from centrist parties, which could potentially help him form the next government. To anyone now claiming that Netanyahu’s annexation plan would lead to international isolation, he can now provide a clear response: “The U.S. supports the move, so nothing to worry about.”
5. Will Israel really annex the West Bank?
Very likely. If elected, Netanyahu would probably move to implement at least part of his promise for annexation—either because of his own positions or as a result of pressure from settler parties. This means annexing all or part of the land known as Area C, a section of the West Bank which includes mainly Jewish settlements and is under the full control of the IDF. Area C makes up about 60% of the West Bank, but includes a relatively low number of Palestinian residents. So an Israeli annexation could mean an implementation of full Israeli sovereignty over most settlements, roads and sparsely populated areas, with most Palestinians not necessarily feeling the change in their daily lives. But in terms of legal status and future policy, the transformation will be dramatic, taking a significant part of the West Bank off the negotiation table and dealing a death blow to the idea of an independent Palestinian state.
(Top photo: Ambassador David M. Friedman/Twitter)