Ambassador Friedman, Please be More Specific [Analysis]
U.S. envoy to Israel causes firestorm by suggesting country has ‘right’ to parts of West Bank
United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman created a firestorm this weekend by suggesting in a New York Times interview that Israel was entitled to annex parts of the West Bank.
“Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank,” Friedman said.
His words echoed those of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who, while campaigning ahead of the April 9 elections, vowed to incorporate into Israel various unspecified Jewish communities located across the pre-1967 borders.
The response to Friedman’s comments was fast and furious, with left-leaning groups such as the Israel-based Peace Now and U.S.-based J Street calling for his removal. For its part, the Palestinian Authority – top-ranking members of which previously referred to Friedman as a “son of a dog” and a “shill for the settler movement” – threatened to file a claim against the envoy with the International Criminal Court.
The PA also announced that it was planning a “popular uprising” – which many Israelis consider a euphemism for violence – on June 25-26, coinciding with a U.S.-sponsored economic workshop in Bahrain, at which the Trump Administration will unveil the first component of its much-anticipated and long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal.
Israeli media have quoted one senior Palestinian official as saying that mass protests would take place at “friction points,” thereby raising the specter of clashes.
Over the past week, leading Palestinian politicians have told The Media Line that U.S. President Donald Trump’s still-unknown vision for solving the conflict was “contrary to and in violation of international law.” Others described Friedman as “an Israeli Zionist ambassador, like his boss [in the White House].” They uniformly denounced President Trump’s “deal of the century” and reiterated their refusal to engage in any U.S.-led negotiating process.
Indeed, the ensuing backlash against Friedman’s comments was so fierce that it obscured his subsequent qualification explaining Washington’s approach.
“We really don’t have a view until we understand how much, on what terms, why does [annexation] 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. These are all things that we’d want to understand, and I don’t want to prejudge,” he said.
Friedman appears to be a proponent of the school of thought maintaining that the Palestinian territories are “disputed” rather than “occupied,” a position with a legal foundation that governments worldwide nevertheless tend to reject.
The 1917 Balfour Declaration called for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in what would become British-ruled Palestine. While London subsequently backtracked – it allocated the vast majority of the territory to those who would create the Kingdom of Jordan, and during the Holocaust prevented Jewish immigration – the United Nations in 1947 voted to partition the remaining land between the Jews and Arabs.
That resolution, however, never gained traction as regional countries uniformly rejected the move and initiated a war to annihilate the local Jewish population, which at the time stood at around 600,000. Thereafter, Jordan and Egypt ruled the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively, until 1967.
Over the course of six days that June, Israel captured both territories, including the eastern part of Jerusalem. The Israeli government immediately offered to negotiate their return in exchange for peace, to which its neighbors responded with the infamous Khartoum Resolution, otherwise known as the Three Nos: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.
The UN Security Council a month later thus adopted Resolution 242, which called for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Since the language of the text did not call for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories, the underlying assumption was that the Jewish state would retain parts of the West Bank vital to its ongoing security.
Resolution 242 would act as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations throughout the Oslo Process (even though the Security Council approved other motions denouncing Israel during the intervening timeframe) and until then-U.S. president Barack Obama, just weeks before leaving office, allowed the passage of UNSC Resolution 2334 by abstaining during the vote. That motion defined Israel’s civilian presence in the West Bank as a “flagrant violation” of international law, making murkier the status of territories the Palestinians claim for a future state.
According to Dr. Eugene Kontorovich, a Professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School and a scholar at the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem, the West Bank’s legal status is not cut-and-dry.
“The most basic legal premise that supports Israel’s right to the West Bank is the decision [in 1920] by the League of Nations [essentially the precursor to the UN] to formally create Mandatory Palestine,” Kontorovich told The Media Line. “When a new country like Israel is created, its default borders are those of the last geopolitical entity in the territory, in this case Mandatory Palestine.”
He further explained that “occupation” is a technical status that derives from the laws of war defined by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which, “if it ever applied in this case – and I do not believe it does – then it would relate to Israel and Jordan, because the latter controlled the West Bank until 1967.”
Yet, as Kontorovich further elaborated, “the peace treaty with Jordan would have ended any status of occupation that existed. This would not mean that the region is now necessarily part of Israel but, rather, that it is not occupied,” he said.
“As for Security Council resolutions,” he concluded, “they do not change general international law. The UNSC is not the arbiter of sovereignty but can make recommendations based on its members’ positions. While these decisions can hurt Israel diplomatically, they do not infringe on its [territorial claims].”
Legal debates aside, Friedman’s comments highlighted an important point, perhaps the one that foremost accounts for the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian impasse: namely, that past peace efforts may have been lacking in practicality.
First, they ignored the PA’s unflinching maximalist positions, including, for example, its unwillingness to bend on the “right of return,” which would effectively destroy the Jewish state by flooding the country with millions of third- and fourth-generation Palestinian “refugees.” More fundamentally, the 1993 Oslo Accords never sought the creation of a fully sovereign Palestinian state, as was made clear at the time by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Most ironic is that the PA has de facto conceded that Israel would retain certain blocs in the West Bank in the event a peace deal is forged. In fact, out of this tacit acknowledgment was borne the concept of “land swaps,” which entail Israel’s retention of critical security areas such as the Jordan Valley (or about 4-8 percent of the West Bank) in exchange for an equal amount of land located on the Israeli side of the Green Line.
“We are not speaking about a large amount of territory – very little actually – but those looking uniquely through the land-for-peace prism have often ignored various dimensions of the conflict,” Brig.-Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and previously deputy commander of the Israeli army’s Gaza Strip Division, told The Media Line.
“Based on my knowledge and experience, in any future peace agreement, Israel will maintain control over a few key places deemed critical to its future safety,” Nuriel added. “However, the issue of security ties into a much broader picture that includes the core political issues. Until all of these components are dealt with in one unified package, all of them will remain open to debate.”
Accordingly, Freidman’s comments might be construed as a reaffirmation of a largely unspoken, albeit longstanding, reality. This rings truer when considering that no Israeli government – Left or Right – would today countenance handing over the entire West Bank to a barely-functioning government that has failed to develop the cornerstones – whether economic or institutional – of a viable, never mind prosperous, nation.
Then there are the approximately 500,000 Jewish-Israelis living in the West Bank, the vast majority of whom could never be uprooted from their homes nor be abandoned to live under full Palestinian jurisdiction. Dismantling isolated communities, maybe. A total evacuation? Inconceivable.
This is reinforced by the national trauma caused by the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, when Israel forcibly removed every man, woman and child (some 8,000 civilians) as well as every soldier from the coastal enclave, only to see it transformed by Hamas two years later into a terrorist base.
The real question, then, is what exactly Friedman envisions, which seemingly cannot be disconnected from the larger context of the Trump Administration’s peace push. While there have been numerous reports that the White House is open to Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank, no senior official before Friedman has publicly floated such a clear-cut trial balloon.
Words have consequences, especially those not backed by a concrete plan of action. Therefore, given the latest uproar, one can only request of Ambassador Friedman: Please be more specific.