U.S. Distances Itself Again From Trump's Ambassador to Israel Over '2%' Remark on Occupation

State Department says David Friedman's claim that Israel 'only occupies 2 percent of the West Bank' does not reflect a new policy on behalf of Washington

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and David Friedman, United States Ambassador to Israel, attend a ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation and unification of Jerusalem, Sunday, May 21, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and David Friedman, United States Ambassador to Israel, attend a ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the liberation and unification of Jerusalem, Sun Abir Sultan/AP

For the second time in three weeks, the U.S. State Department has publicly distanced itself from comments made by David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, clarifying that his words do not signal a shift in U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The rare diplomatic rebuke of a sitting ambassador came at a time when Friedman, together with other senior Trump administration officials, is working on the president's goal of renewing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. 

On Thursday, Israeli news website Walla published an interview with Friedman, in which the ambassador said that Israel is "only occupying 2 percent of the West Bank," and that it was "always the expectation" that Israel would expand into the area it conquered after the Six Day War in 1967. Previous U.S. administrations, from both parties, have consistently referred to the West Bank as occupied territory and have denounced Israel for building settlements within that area.  

Hours after the interview was published, the State Department's spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, was asked about Friedman's comments during a press briefing in Washington, and responded by making clear that the ambassador's words do not reflect a new policy on behalf of the U.S. government. 

"I’m aware of what he said. 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 U.S. would have with the Israelis and the Palestinians. It should also not indicate a shift in U.S. policy," Nauert said in reply. 

Nauert was then asked a follow-up question highlighting the fact that only three weeks ago, she also had to distance the State Department from comments made by Friedman, who said in a previous interview with the Jerusalem Post that the Israeli left-wing opposition was opposing the "alleged occupation" of the West Bank. Back then, Nauert also stated that Friedman's words do not represent a shift in American policy, which has been to define the West Bank as occupied territory.

In reply to the question of how is it possible that for the second time in less than a month, the State Department is contradicting the ambassador to Israel, Nauert said – "I guess what I would say to that is we have some very effective leaders and representatives for the U.S. government, including Jason Greenblatt and Mr. [Jared] Kushner, who are spending an awful lot of time in the region trying to get both sides together to have talks about a lasting existence side by side. The president has made that one of his top priorities."

Nauert then added: "I think it indicates just how important this is to the president that he has put those two in charge of negotiating that. In terms of the ambassador, I can’t comment any more for you on that other than to say our policy here has not changed." Her words can be perceived as hinting at differences of opinion between Kushner and Greenblatt – both of whom work inside the White House – and Friedman, who is in charge of the embassy in Tel Aviv. 

Nauert, however, also stated that she had "not had the chance to speak to the ambassador, so I will hesitate at commenting too much on what he said. I was not there. I have not heard it. I have not heard the context in which that conversation was had. But I just want to be clear that our policy has not changed." 

Earlier on Thursday, the organization Americans for Peace Now published a statement calling on Trump to fire Friedman over his comments. According to the organization, Friedman "made statements that blatantly contradict long-held United States policy, as well as objective facts and international law. Ambassador Friedman continues to damage US efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, a chief U.S. national security interest and avowed goal of President Trump."

With regards to Interpol's decision earlier this week to accept Palestine as a member of the international policing organization, Nauert stated that, "We were disappointed in the vote. It grants Palestinian Authority country status in Interpol. We believe that that vote unnecessarily politicizes the important law enforcement body. We believe it also complicates efforts to achieve a historic conflict-ending agreement between the parties."