UPDATE 12.16.16: This interview was first published on June 23 - Donald Trump has since tapped David Friedman as the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
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If elected U.S. president in November, Donald Trump would support Israel’s annexing parts of the West Bank, a senior official in the Trump campaign told Haaretz in an interview this week.
Trump is not worried about the possibility of a binational state, said David Friedman, the candidate’s adviser on Israel. “Nobody really knows how many Palestinians live there,” he said.
As president, Trump would be unlikely to adopt the policies of President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, that a Palestinian state is a U.S. security interest, the adviser said. A 57-year-old lawyer specializing in real estate and bankruptcies, Friedman has worked with Trump as an attorney for 15 years.
A few months ago during the election campaign, Trump announced that Friedman, along with Trump Industries legal adviser Jason Greenblatt, would both serve as his advisers on Israeli affairs.
The telephone interview on Tuesday evening took place as polls showed Trump sliding and his campaign seemed racked by crisis. Friedman predicted that despite criticism of Trump’s reaction to the Orlando attack, once the dust settled, his public support would grow.
“Things are not going downhill. Everything is fine,” Friedman said. “The polls are extremely fluid. They don’t mean much at this point. People who study the polls tell us it is pretty even right now. There is a lot of work to do but nobody is discouraged by the polling.”
Trump's ambassador to Israel?
A profile of Friedman published a few weeks ago by Makor Rishon describes him as the lead candidate for the job of ambassador to Israel if Trump wins the election. Friedman is involved in philanthropic activities for Israel, a large part of which has to do with settlements in the West Bank. He is president of an organization of American friends of the Beit El settlement, who have sent millions of dollars to the settlement in recent years.
Since the start of his campaign, Trump has said that if elected he would try to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. But the candidate has also told the British Daily Mail that he supports unlimited expansion of Israeli settlements. Friedman said that in recent months he has given Trump a few briefings about the Israeli-Palestinian issue and that Trump is knowledgeable about the details of the long-standing conflict.
Trump’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as his close aide sees it, will be welcomed by the right and the Israeli settlements lobby. If Trump wins the election, Friedman said he would carry out the policy as he, Friedman, presented it. He would in effect retreat from a policy in place under Republican and Democratic presidents alike for the past five decades. In such a situation, Trump would even be further to the right than his apparent supporter, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Does Mr. Trump support the creation of an independent Palestinian state?
“The answer is – not without the approval of the Israelis,” said Friedman. “This is an issue that Israel has to deal with on its own because it will have to deal with the consequences. His feeling about Israel is that it is a robust democracy. The Israelis have to make the decision on whether or not to give up land to create a Palestinian state. If the Israelis don’t want to do it, so he doesn’t think they should do it. It is their choice. ... He does not think it is an American imperative for it to be an independent Palestinian state. “
Friedman explains that the reasons for Trump’s positions about the creation of a Palestinian state are due first and foremost to what he described as “the Gaza experiment” and the way that ended. The second reason is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has no domestic political legitimacy in the Palestinian Authority, and therefore he has no mandate to sign a peace agreement. Finally, Friedman explains, the American interest is that Israel will live in security and therefore any step that may weaken it should be avoided.
“If the Israelis conclude that they need to do this [establish a Palestinian state] in order to enhance their long-term security – which I think we are very skeptical about – but if this is what they conclude they want to do, we will respect this decision. ... If the circumstances change ... and there is a reason to be optimistic, then great, but the current facts don’t make that [Palestinian state] an American imperative at all.”
'Committed to settlers'
Friedman said Trump’s support for building settlements stemmed from his understanding that the Israeli government “has a commitment to its citizens in Judea and Samaria” who moved out there with its agreement. Trump, according to Friedman, said Israel has to continue to build in the settlements because there is no reason not to do so.
Israelis “don’t have to wait another generation for the Palestinians to hold more realistic expectations and show less hostile motivation,” Friedman said. “Trump’s position is that we have to deal with reality and not hopes and wishes.”
Trump’s aide said the possibility of a binational state emerging between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea doesn’t worry Trump. Listening to the policy Friedman talks reminds one more than a little of the positions of Habayit Hayehudi and the YESHA council of settlements.
“There are always creative ways to allow people to live in peace. It is not always about the land. We don’t accept the idea it is only about land. Nobody really knows how many Palestinians actually live there,” Friedman said.
Does he think Trump would object to Israel annexing parts of the West Bank?
“I think there are parts of the West Bank that will stay part of Israel in any peace deal. I am sure he wouldn’t have any problem with that at all. Regarding the entire West Bank I think that’s a legal issue. I don’t think he will have a problem with that but he would expect Israel to continue seeking peace. He has no doubt that Israel wants peace,” Friedman replied.
Many ministers in the Israeli government support the annexation of at least parts of the West Bank to Israel – would Trump support that?
“I would expect that he would,” said the adviser. “I haven’t had this discussion with him but I expect he would. “
Friedman revealed that as part of his job he has already met with Israeli government representatives in Jerusalem, but he won’t go into further detail. He doesn’t know when Trump would arrive for a visit to Israel, but says it wouldn’t happen before the Republican National Convention on July 19-21. Although there’s no set date at the moment, it seems likely Trump would make Israel a desired destination during the campaign, between the end of July and early November.
'Trump a willing partner on aid deal'
One of the main issues on the agenda in Israeli-U.S. relations now is the security aid deal for the coming decade. Despite months of negotiations, there are still differences preventing the sides form signing an agreement. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he wants to close a deal while Obama is still in office, the fact he doesn’t sign one raises the possibility that he prefers to wait until the next president takes office.
Friedman is cautious in his response to the question of whether he would recommend that Netanyahu wait for a Trump victory and avoid signing an agreement beforehand. He says he isn’t briefed on all the details of the current American proposal.
“But if the discussions are not completed by the conclusion of the Obama administration, you will find in Trump a very willing and enthusiastic partner who will be highly receptive to the idea of maintaining and enhancing Israel’s military superiority in the region,” Friedman said.
“If Trump is the winner and there is no deal yet, they have nothing to worry about,” he said. “If Hillary wins, then I don’t know.”