EXCLUSIVE

In Rare Move, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Joins Trump Envoy in Meeting With Palestinians

Despite Abbas' initial objections, Friedman joined Trump's special envoy Greenblatt in talks with Palestinian negotiators

David Friedman, new United States Ambassador to Israel, kisses the Western Wall after arriving in the Jewish state on Monday and immediately paying a visit to the main Jewish holy site, in Jerusalem's Old City May 15, 2017  REUTERS/Ammar Awad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
David Friedman, new United States Ambassador to Israel, kisses the Western Wall after arriving in the Jewish state on Monday and immediately paying a visit to the main Jewish holy site, in Jerusalem's AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Jason Greenblatt, met the Palestinian negotiators in Jerusalem on Tuesday as part of talks to renew the peace process. Haaretz has learned that in a rare move, the meeting was also be attended by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who, by virtue of his position, is in charge of ties with Israel.

The fact that Friedman joined the meeting marks a shift in U.S. policy in place from the time of both the Bush and Obama administrations.

A senior White House official stated that Greenblatt, Friedman and American Consul General in Jerusalem Donald Blome had an "open, cordial and frank" discussion with the Palestinian team on a number of matters related to the peace process. The Trump administration believes, he told Haaretz, that in order for an ultimate deal to be reached it is critical that the American negotiators are those closest to President Donald Trump. That is why the team includes Kushner, Greenblatt and Friedman, he said. 

The meeting, slated to take place in Jerusalem, is expected to be attended by the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, the head of the Palestinian intelligence, Majid Faraj, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' economic adviser, Mohammad Mustafa.

"Greenblatt and Friedman are meeting in Israel and the Palestinian negotiation team agreed to the request to meet them together with General Consul Blome," the White House official said, adding that the visit comes "on the backdrop of [White House] discussions on additional potential steps" that can be taken regarding the peace process.

The White House official stressed that President Trump's mandate to Friedman was for him to be a central player on the American negotiation team and Trump asked him to work closely with Greenblatt as well as his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, to advance peace talks.

President Donald Trump meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Evan Vucci/AP

Haaretz has learned that during Trump's meeting in Bethlehem with Abbas a month and a half ago, Trump asked his advisers why Friedman was not part of the meeting. Trump's advisers told him that according to guidelines, Freidman does not attend meetings with the Palestinians because he is the ambassador to Israel. After that meeting, Trump instructed the policy be changed so that Friedman will attend the meeting with the Palestinians if need be.

Three weeks ago, during Kushner and Greenblatt's visit to the region, the two wanted to include Friedman in a meeting with Abbas. The Palestinian president rejected the request out of hand, Palestinian officials told Haaretz, with Abbas saying he would not agree to meet with Friedman.

Behind Abbas' refusal were two considerations, the Palestinian official said. First, the Palestinians view Friedman as a hostile force aligned with Israeli settlers, due to positions he voiced during the election campaign and his support of the West Bank settlement of Beit El. In addition, the Palestinians see the U.S. ambassador's attendance at their meetings as a blow to the independent and separate diplomatic status they have had over the past 20 years with the American administration.

On the American side, they decided not to insist on Friedman's presence in order to avoid a confrontation with Abbas on a relatively minor issue during Kushner's visit. In the end, Friedman did not take part in that meeting. However, ahead of Greenblatt's current visit, the Americans again asked to include Friedman in meetings with the Palestinian side, but to do so at the level of professional staffs and as an " introductory meeting." The Palestinians accepted the proposal.

The inclusion of the U.S. ambassador to Israel for meetings with Palestinians is rare and constitutes a change from the policy adopted by the American administration both during the terms of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The move is not entirely unprecedented, however. During the Clinton administration, when Martin Indyk served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel, he participated in meetings with the Palestinian side in 1999-2000.

At that time, the Palestinian Authority was still in its infancy, and so was American policy on the issue. Indyk, who, prior to his appointment as ambassador, served in senior positions in the State Department and the White House in Washington, where he dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, was well acquainted with senior figures in the PA leadership. In addition, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv was responsible for the Gaza Strip.

After Indyk ended his tenure, rules were set which stipulated that the American consul in Jerusalem was responsible for the relations with the Palestinians, while the ambassador in Tel Aviv was responsible for the relations with Israel. The post-Indyk ambassadors: Daniel Kurtzer, Richard Jones, James Cunningham and Daniel Shapiro did not hold working meetings with the Palestinian side.