Israel’s elections do-over has pushed back President Donald Trump’s planned roll out of his “deal of the century,” which will set out his administration’s plan for achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But all the same, members of his “peace team” are making headlines.
In an interview with the New York Times published on June 8, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman spoke in broad terms about what the Trump team envisages in regards to the ultimate disposition of the West Bank, otherwise known as Judea and Samaria.
Nearly a half million Israeli Jews live in the areas. Another 300,000 Israeli Jews live in neighborhoods in northern, southern and eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods. The Palestinians demand that in exchange for peace, Israel must expel all of the Israeli Jewsand transfer their cities, villages, neighborhoods, and farms to the Palestinians.
Israel rejects these positions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear in his last term of office that he will not remove any Israelis from their homes and communities in Judea and Samaria, let alone in Jerusalem.
In his interview with the Times, Friedman said, “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”
On Sunday, his colleague Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special assistant for negotiations, expressed his support for Friedman’s statement.
In a separate appearance on June 17, Greenblatt also rejected the Palestinian position that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria represent obstacles to peace. In Greenblatt’s words, “The lack of peace has nothing to do with the existence of settlements, no matter what people say day in and day out.”
Rather, in his remarks to the Times, Friedman explained that the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to make a deal with Israel is the most significant obstacle to peace. “There’s more blame on the Palestinian side,” he said.
Friedman added, “There were some extraordinarily generous proposals made to the Palestinians that they turned down.”
Friedman’s statements to the Times sparked immediate outrage among the Palestinian leadership in Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s governing Fatah party. Hamas sent a mob to Gaza’s border with Israel to riot in protest. PA leaders attacked Friedman as “a settler spokesman.”
The PA’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it is considering filing a war crimes complaint against Friedman with the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
There are two notable aspects regarding both Friedman’s remarks – and subsequent remarks by Greenblatt – and the furious responses they have generated among the Palestinians and their allies on the far left in the U.S. and Israel.
Friedman’s remarks were notable because he did nothing but restate the positions of all previous U.S. administrations other than the Obama administration. It has been the position of every U.S. administration since the Johnson administration that Israel would not be expected to transfer control over all of the territories it has controlled since the 1967 Six Day War in the framework of peace treaties with its Arab neighbors. The Johnson administration made this point explicitly in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War in two ways.
First, then-president Lyndon Johnson’s UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg insisted that the language in UN Security Council Resolution 242, which set the terms for the ceasefire at the end of the war and the terms for future peace between the Arab states and Israel, enable perpetual retention by Israel of some of the territories it took control over during the war.
As former Israeli UN ambassador Dr. Dore Gold wrote recently, the Johnson administration insisted on drafting the resolution in a manner that kept open the possibility that Israel would retain significant territories in perpetuity.
Two weeks after the war ended, on June 29, 1967, at Johnson’s request, then Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff presented Johnson with the U.S. military’s assessment of Israel’s territorial requirements. The Wheeler memo stated that in all future peace deals between Israel and the Arab states, Israel would be required to retain large swathes of territory to secure its borders.
In the intervening years, as Gold noted, it was the consistent position of the U.S. that Israel would retain significant territory in all future peace deals with its neighbors, including the Palestinians. Even Jimmy Carter, who is widely viewed as the most anti-Israel U.S. president aside from Barack Obama said in 2009, that he envisioned that in any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel would retain control over blocs of communities in Judea and Samaria.
It was due to this longstanding U.S. position that Israeli leaders were blindsided by the hostility of the Obama administration. Unlike all of its predecessors, the Obama administration adopted the Palestinian position that Israel should be expected to expel some 750,000 Israeli citizens from their homes and cities and neighborhoods in the framework of peace with the Palestinians. The administration made this view clear in its determination that those Israeli neighborhoods and communities were “illegal”.
The Obama administration demanded that Israel prevent Israeli Jews from exercising their property rights to build homes and public buildings not only in Judea and Samaria, but in Jerusalem neighborhoods built since 1967 as well.
Netanyahu was so concerned by Obama’s radical shift in U.S. policy that in 2011 he felt compelled to respond to Obama’s unprecedentedly hostile position publicly. In May 2011, Netanyahu used a photo opportunity in the Oval Office to push back against Obama. Sitting next to a glaring Obama, Netanyahu insisted that Israel would not retreat to the 1949 armistice lines, the country’s indefensible boundaries, which invited invasion before the 1967 war. As the reactions to Friedman’s New York Times interview made clear, outside the far left, no significant Israeli constituency exists for such a position.
In other words, Friedman and later Greenblatt did nothing other than to make official the Trump administration’s rejection of Obama’s radical shift of U.S. foreign policy.
Indeed, in his interview with the Times, Friedman blasted the Obama administration’s radicalism. He said that by allowing the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2234, which calls Israeli settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law, the Obama administration gave credence to the Palestinian claim “that the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem belong to them.”
This brings us to the left’s condemnation of Friedman and Greenblatt’s statements. Whereas the Trump administration is systematically rolling back Obama’s radical Middle East policies, whether in relation to Iran or Israel and the Palestinians or the Sunni Arab world writ large, those policies did have a profound and enduring impact on the American and Israeli left.
The Obama administration’s positions has shifted the discourse on the left in the U.S. and the far left in Israel in relation to Israel and the Palestinians to a starting point that assumes that Israel’s unification of Jerusalem in the aftermath of the 1967 war was illegal and that all Jewish presence in unified Jerusalem, as well as in Judea and Samaria, is similarly illegal.
The Democratic Party’s newfound hostility to Israel, expressed among other things in the refusal of all declared Democratic presidential candidates to attend the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC’s annual convention in Washington in March, and in repeated allegations of racismlobbed at the Israeli government by Democratic White House aspirants, is a direct consequence of Obama’s radical shift against Israel.
It is hard to overstate how radical, and out of step with the basic principles of international law, this position is. It is also hard to overstate how hostile this position is to Israel’s very existence.
The Trump administration may or may not end up unveiling its peace plan. And if that plan is unveiled, the question of whether it will have a lasting impact on the politics of peacemaking in the Middle East will be a function of whether Trump wins reelection or if he is defeated by a Democratic challenger next November.
What is clear enough is that it isn’t the Trump administration that has adopted positions radically out of line with those of previous administrations. Rather, it was the Obama administration that adopted positions hostile to Israel that represented a clear breach with the positions of all of its predecessors – Democratic and Republican.
It is similarly clear that the Obama administration’s radicalism in turn radicalized its supporters in the Democratic Party and in the far left in Israel and worldwide. And as a consequence, the distinction between the two major political parties in the U.S. today on the issue of Israel and the Middle East has never been more pronounced or dangerous for Israel.