Analysis

With One Word, Trump's Envoy Sets Stage for Israeli Annexation of West Bank

Washington distanced itself from David Friedman's comments on Israel's 'right' to annex parts of the West Bank, but history teaches that the ambassador is a much better barometer for which way the wind is blowing in the Oval Office

File photo: U.S. Amb. to Israel David Friedman (Left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in a ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem, May 14, 2019.
Emil Salman

Many clarifications will be heard in the future around the interview given last week to the New York Times by the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. However, a few little words among the many quoted are sufficient to understand the entire picture: “Israel has the right."

The enthusiastic supporter of the settlement enterprise, who can’t understand why the Palestinians don’t see him as an impartial mediator, told the New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem, David Halbfinger, that “Under certain circumstances I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” Friedman reiterated this narrative in response to another question, saying: “I think certainly Israel is entitled to retain some portion of it [the West Bank].”

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Some interpret these words as if they were referring, in general, to the possibility that one day, Israel will retain under its full sovereignty some of the West Bank settlements as part of the “deal of the century.” But the context in which these statements were made was very clear, also after further inquiries by Haaretz with Halbfinger: The U.S. envoy was referring in his replies to the possibility that Israel might soon annex, unilaterally, some parts of [fully Israeli-controlled] Area C in the West Bank, not as part of some future arrangement. This came in the wake of statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said before the April 9 election that he had discussed with the Trump administration unilateral steps of annexing parts of Gush Etzion and Ma'aleh Adumim.

Even if some room remains for doubt, and even if Friedman himself will retract his words due to the expected outcry they evoked, the loaded term “right” in this context is quite sufficient for understanding his approach to the matter. 

Israel, in his mind, has “rights” over part, if not all, of the lands it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. What does this right mean? According to international law it doesn’t have such rights. The possibility then remains that Friedman was referring to historical or religious rights.

When Halbfinger challenged Friedman on the administration’s response to unilateral Israeli moves to exercise its right, he was evasive but did not totally dismiss some kind of consent. “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, describing an open U.S. mind and some willingness to examine such a possibility, which contravenes not only international law but UN resolutions, as well as the U.S. stances over the years. “These are all things that we’d want to understand and I don’t want to prejudge”, he added.

Friedman is a controversial figure even among some of his colleagues in Washington. But, the door of the person who ultimately decides, President Donald Trump, is wide open for him. In the past, he used similar types of interviews for preparing the ground for unilateral steps which had at first seemed unimaginable, such as transferring the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem or recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

In what has become routine, the U.S. State Department rushed to clarify that Friedman’s words do not reflect the White House’s position and that Israel did not present the U.S. with any plan for annexation, and that no talks were being held on this matter. But previous experience teaches that such statements themselves do not necessarily reflect the president’s position. Friedman is a better barometer for the atmospheric pressure in the Oval Room.

Moreover, when the administration wants to stay away from talk of annexation, it knows how to do so in a very forceful manner, as it did in February 2018, when Netanyahu claimed that he was discussing this with them. “I can report that I’m discussing this issue with the Americans,” he said in a Likud meeting in response to a growing number of initiatives geared at annexing territories.

Netanyahu added that he had been guided by two principles – the first was that such a law must be a government initiative, not a private bill, since “this is a historic move,” and the second was “to be maximally coordinated with the Americans.”

The White House responded with an unusually sharp retort, saying that “reports, according to which Israel is holding talks with the U.S. about annexation plans in the West Bank, are false. Israel and the U.S. have never discussed such a proposal.” Following this brush-off, Netanyahu changed his version, saying that he had only “updated the Americans about initiatives raised in the Knesset.”

Over time, these statements are becoming bolder and their refutations flimsier. When Netanyahu was asked before the election why he hadn’t annexed anything so far, he told Rina Matzliach of Israel's Channel 12 News: “Who told you we wouldn’t do it? We’re on that path, we’re discussing it. I’ll see to it that we control those areas…you’re asking if we’ll move to the next stage and my answer is yes, I’m going to impose sovereignty [there].” This statement was not met with a sharp U.S. Administration response calling this a “falsehood.”

Netanyahu’s failure in putting together a coalition and a subsequent repeat election upset the plans of the Trump team in charge of the Middle East peace plan. Trump had wanted to present some of the plan just before the economic conference in Bahrain slated to take place on June 25. For now, the conference is still happening but is marred not just by political instability in Israel, but by a heavy Palestinian boycott. In an attempt to minimize the flop, the White House has started sending messages indicating that media coverage of the conference will also be “limited.”

In the meantime, with or without a peace deal, Israel is deepening its hold on Area C and East Jerusalem, and intensifying its declarations of intent to officially annex some of these areas. Actual annexation bills have been formulated in the past by a person whose clout within the political system continues to grow: Bezalel Smotrich of the Union of Right-Wing Parties. In this environment, the day is not far off when Israel starts exercising the “right” bestowed on it by Ambassador Friedman.