As the Trump administration prepares to unveil its Israel-Palestinian peace plan, the U.S. ambassador to Israel has told The New York Times Israel has the right to annex at least some, but “unlikely all,” of the West Bank.
In an interview with the newspaper published Saturday, David M. Friedman declined to say how the United States would respond if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved to annex West Bank land unilaterally.
“We really don’t have a view until we understand how much, on what terms, why does it 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,” Friedman said. “These are all things that we’d want to understand, and I don’t want to prejudge.”
In April, Netanyahu pledged to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank if re-elected, a dramatic policy shift that many perceived as an attempt to rally his nationalist base in the final stretch of the tight race for the country’s leadership.
The pledge caused an uproar as it was widely seen to undermine the possibility of a so-called two-state solution to the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war. The Palestinians claim these areas as part of a future state.
Friedman has been a fervent supporter of Israeli settlements, which most of the international community views as illegal.
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“Under certain circumstances,” Friedman told the New York Times, “I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”
His remarks drew swift criticism from a liberal Jewish lobbying group, J Street.
“David Friedman has once again made clear that he is acting not as the U.S. ambassador to Israel but as the settlement movement’s ambassador to the United States," said J Street's president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, in a statement.
"By essentially giving the Netanyahu government a green light to begin unilaterally annexing Palestinian territory in the West Bank the Trump administration is endorsing a flagrant violation of international law."
In the Times interview, Friedman blamed the Obama administration for allowing the United Nations to pass a resolution in 2016 that condemned Israeli settlements as a “flagrant violation” of international law and "a major obstacle" to the vision of two states living side-by-side in peace and security.
“Certainly Israel’s entitled to retain some portion of it,” he said of the West Bank.
Friedman’s admission comes at the Trump administration prepares to unveil at least part of its long-awaited peace plan for the region, largely overseen by the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
In the interview, Friedman accused Palestinian politicians of trying to sabotage a conference in Bahrain that the Trump administration is organizing this month ahead of the deal’s release.
Friedman said there was “massive pressure” on Palestinian business leaders not to attend the gathering expected to focus on revitalizing Palestinian economy and attracting foreign investment.
There was a “silent majority” of Palestinians who would jump at the Trump peace plan if not for the “real-life consequences” they could face from repressive West Bank officials, Friedman added.
In a contentious move last year, the Trump administration moved its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv after recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, breaking with decades of precedent and drawing accusations of favoring Israel’s position in the conflict.
Palestinian officials have not been on speaking terms with Washington after their leadership cut ties in response to Trump's decision to move the embassy.
The United States has also cut more than $200 million in aid to the Palestinians.
More recently, Trump signed a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a plateau Israel captured from Syria in 1967. That move drew condemnation from the international community that regards it as territory occupied by Israel.