US Ambassador David Friedman speaks at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on February 9. (Charles Bybelezer)

US Envoy Puts Brakes on Israeli Annexations (with VIDEO)

Ambassador David Friedman says process ‘about to begin,’ adds joint committee tasked with ‘mapping out’ areas to be formed ‘soon’

Following 10 days of confusion over whether the release of the Trump Administration’s Middle East peace plan constitutes an immediate green light for Israel to annex portions of the West Bank, US Ambassador David Friedman on Sunday clarified that the Jewish state does not presently have Washington’s blessing to apply sovereignty over territories the Palestinians claim as part of a future state of their own.

“If we’re talking about what we understand the agreement to be with the Israeli government, it’s that we will begin a process, and that process is literally just about to begin [whereby] a six-member committee… [will] be converting a theoretical map on a scale of more than 1,000,000:1 into something that really shows on the ground how the [West Bank] territory will be put together,” Friedman said at a briefing hosted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA).

“There are some judgment calls, and we don’t want to do this piecemeal,” he continued. “We just want to get it done right – it’s not too much to ask – following which there would be immediate recognition [of Israeli sovereignty over the designated areas].… That’s how we would hope the Israeli government proceeds.”

The situation is a far cry from when, in the immediate aftermath of the plan’s unveiling at the White House on January 28, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu vowed to convene his cabinet less than a week later to push through legislation annexing about 30% of the West Bank.

The prime minister was subsequently caught off guard when Jared Kushner, the chief architect of the peace proposal, told CNN just hours afterward that the administration would not support such annexations in advance of Israel’s March 2 national election.

For his part, Friedman also initially indicated that Israel would be free to move forward at its own pace. Yet he walked back the assertion the next day, saying the joint committee would first need to approve the parameters of any prospective annexation bill to ensure they coincided with the peace plan’s “conceptual map.”

On Sunday, the US envoy confirmed that President Donald Trump and Netanyahu would each choose three members to sit on the US-Israeli committee, although he gave no specific date for when the mapping would be finalized. The ambassador did, however, emphasize that this would not occur before the Israeli vote.

“We don’t think that the process will be completed before March 2. We have a sense in our own minds of what’s involved, the amount of time it will take, the demands on the committee members,” he said. “There will be some visits and tours… but beyond that the committee will proceed as quickly as it can.”

Notably, Friedman insisted that the White House would not condition any eventual annexations on the establishment of a new Israeli governing coalition. The country is in the throes of political gridlock, with Netanyahu overseeing a caretaker government for over a year prior to and following inconclusive national elections last April and September.

During Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu aligned his position with that of the US administration.

“In Washington, during my latest visit, we made history,” he said.

“We brought an American plan according to which Israel [can apply its] sovereignty in the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea, all the [Israeli] communities in Judea and Samaria without exception – big or little – and large territories surrounding them,” the prime minister asserted, according to media reports.

“This requires precise mapping of these areas, the entire territory.… But the Americans are saying in the clearest manner: ‘We want to give you recognition and we’ll give it to you when the entire process is complete,’” he added.

Meanwhile, Friedman explained that Israel would be allowed to proceed unilaterally, even as the Palestinians have four years to accept the US proposal as a basis for negotiations, due to the prevailing asymmetry between the Jewish state and the Palestinian Authority.

“Israel is a democracy, [so] you can hold it to its word. It has an enormous relationship with the United States on multiple levels. It is in a position today to keep its part of the bargain,” the envoy said at Sunday’s event.

“The Palestinians are not united. Their government is not democratic. Their institutions are weak. Their respect for the types of norms that we hold dear – whether human rights, freedom of religion or freedom of the press – are non-existent,” he stated.

“Accordingly,” Friedman concluded, “if Israel is ready now… the only way, I think, to induce Israelis to make the kind of commitments that will have ramifications for years to come is to provide them with what they’re entitled to today.”

Nevertheless, throughout his 45-minute discussion, Friedman reiterated the Trump Administration’s belief that the peace proposal would benefit both sides.

“The Palestinians will not be penalized by the passage of time,” the ambassador said. “The integrity of the territorial opportunity earmarked for them will not be compromised.”

He also noted that the plan called for the creation of a Palestinian state on double the amount of territory currently controlled by the PA.

“There is much greater visibility within Palestinian society as to what awaits them if they can live in peace with their neighbors,” Friedman said, possibly in reference to the tens of billions of dollars in funds the US envisions raising and investing in projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip if Ramallah agrees to the terms of the deal.

Dr. Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, adviser to the US peace team and today president of the JCPA, told The Media Line that while some questions remain, the Trump Administration’s plan is a huge opportunity for the Jewish state.

“It provides for the recognition and implementation of the country’s historical and national rights in a not-so-distant timeline,” he said. “If the Palestinians come up to the plate with a baseball bat – a peaceful one – then I am sure some of their concerns would be addressed as well.”

Whereas Gold remains skeptical that the Palestinians will, ultimately, play ball, he nevertheless believes that Washington has breathed new life into a moribund peace process.

“It is very important to understand how past initiatives have failed one after the other. You have a lot of ex-diplomats running around with bitter faces when they see the Trump plan, and that’s not fair,” he stated.

“I think,” he added, “that this offers a whole different approach, and we should give it a try.”

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