Israel has the right to annex parts of the West Bank, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told the New York Times in an interview published Saturday, drawing harsh criticism from Palestinian leaders ahead of the publication of a part of the administration's contensted Middle East peace proposal.
"Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank," he said. The comment follows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's April election promise to annex the territory, which Israel has maintained control over since it was conquered from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War.
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According to Friedman, Israel would also need to keep boots on the ground in the West Bank even after peace is achieved, comparing a future Israel Defense Forces presence in Palestinian territories to American bases in Japan, Korea and Germany.
A State Department official said later on Saturday that “The administration position on settlements has not changed," stressing that "no plan for unilateral annexation by Israel of any portion of the West Bank has been presented by Israel to the U.S. nor is it under discussion.”
When asked if U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan entails a Palestinian state, he asked for clarification on what statehood entails.
Friedman laid responsibility for the conflict largely on the Palestinian side. "There were some extraordinarily generous proposals made to the Palestinians that they turned down," Friedman said. He added that the Palestinian Authority has a "very, very poor track record on human rights" and that "the Palestinian leadership is really the difficulty right now."
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Friedman also told the Times that the Palestinian side only has itself to blame for Trump's approach, a statement similar to comments made by Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner on Monday in which he said that massive cuts to PA aid were "a result of decisions taken by the Palestinian leadership."
Friedman added that such actions were not disproportionate in light of anti-American Palestinian rhetoric, referencing a comment by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who called Friedman "son of a dog." The U.S. ambassador said that such hostility cannot be overlooked.
Friedman also decried Palestinian leadership for exerting "massive pressure" on their business leaders to not attend the conference in Bahrain later this month, in which the economic component of the peace plan will be revealed. The U.S. envoy said he knows they would rather attend.
“There is almost no Palestinian business leader that wants to refrain from meeting with some of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, " he said, "when the topic of the discussion is limited to giving money to the Palestinians."
Bahrain conference boycott
Palestinian movement Fatah released a statement denouncing Friedman's remarks. The statement said that the U.S. has always perceived the West Bank to be occupied territory, and that deviating from this stance would lead to the obstruction of the two-state solution. "Is it the administration's stance or is it the stance of radical settlers?" it charged.
Palestinian Liberation Organization Secretary General Saeb Erekat tweeted that Friedman's comments make it clear that the vision he shares with Trump is "annexation of occupied territory, which is a war crime according to international law." According to Erekat, Friedman's words served as further incentive to boycott the peace workshop in Bahrain.
Palestinian leadership is boycotting the conference. A statement released by the PLO last month said: “Those who are concerned and want to serve the interest of the Palestinian people should respect this collective position. Palestine’s full economic potential can only be achieved by ending the Israeli occupation, respecting international law and UN resolutions.”
Friedman called the conference "an attempt to give life to [Palestinian] aspirations by creating a viable economy," and added that the peace plan would only help if the U.S. is given the opportunity to implement it. "Maybe they won't take it," he said of the Palestinian leadership, "maybe it doesn't meet their minimums." But, he said, after "posturing," "complaining" and polling their people, they may try to come back with a better deal, effectively solving the problem.
Meanwhile, Israeli left-wing NGO Peace Now called on Trump to fire Friedman. "Friedman's radical and irresponsible remarks, made a moment before Trump's peace plan is published, don't leave any room for doubt - the U.S. president must, if he intends to serve as a fair mediator, send Friedman packing tonight."
Peace Now further stressed in their statement that "the price for the criminal act" of annexing the West Bank "would be paid only be residents of the area, not by Friedman or Trump."
Democratic senators introduced a resolution on Thursday to reaffirm support for the two-state solution and stand against annexation, which would complicate the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It was drafted by Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and signed by Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Dianne Feinstein of California, Tammy Duckworth from Illinois, and Dick Durbin, also from Illinois.
“Unilateral annexation of portions of the West Bank would jeopardize prospects for a two-state solution, harm Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors, threaten Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity, and undermine Israel’s security," the resolution states.
Jack Khoury and Amir Tibon contributed to this report.