israel

The David Friedman interview

‘For Israel to give up Hebron, Shiloh, Beit El, Ariel … is like the US giving up the Statue of Liberty’

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The United States is ready to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria in the coming weeks, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told Israel Hayom in a special interview held on the occasion of the two-year anniversary to the relocation of the American Mission in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Friedman explained that several processes must be completed prior to this move, but made it clear that Washington does not plan to impose any new conditions for the move.

Friedman said that when the process of mapping the area is completed, when the Israeli government agrees to halt settlement construction in the part of Area C that will be excluded from the annexation plan, and when it agrees to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan — something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already agreed to — the US will recognize Israel’s sovereignty in areas that the plan outlined.

The ambassador, who is a resident of Woodsburgh in the Five Towns, stressed that the key element in applying Israeli law to these areas is that Israel has to be the one to make the move. It’s not the US that is declaring sovereignty but the Israeli government. Once it does, the US is ready to recognize it, he explained.

But what about the moratorium on settlement constriction? According to Friedman, this stipulation would be relevant only to secluded settlements and would apply to an expansion of their territorial footprint only, not the construction of tall buildings.

Friedman said he has come to learn that Israelis from all walks of life believe that the plan presented by the Trump administration is the best plan for Israel. The US administration knows that, just as Americans would never relinquish the area on which the Statue of Liberty stands, even though it’s a very small area, Israel would never agree to give up places like Beit El and Hebron, which are the historical heart of Judea and Samaria.

“Washington already understands the historical significance Beit El and Judea and Samaria have for the people of Israel,” said Beit El Mayor Shai Alon. “It’s unthinkable that Jerusalem not do the same. It’s time to apply sovereignty. It’s time to leave this debate behind us and make Israeli control over Judea and Samaria a fact.”

The Jewish-American left-leaning lobby J Street, however, criticized Friedman’s statement as one “greenlighting disaster.”

J Street Israel Director Yael Patir told Israel Hayom that “through Ambassador Friedman, the Trump administration announced that it is giving the green light to a disaster.

“Under the guise of a bogus provision stipulating talks with the Palestinians, the administration is backing a move that will debunk the Palestinian hope for self-determination and will, therefore, risk the future existence of the State of Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Here is an abridged version of the interview.

Q: What did the U.S. gain from moving the embassy to Jerusalem?

A: First, we don’t look at things that way. We don’t think everything in life is transactional, we tend to do things because they’re the right thing. … The move of the embassy established President Trump as being someone who keeps promises, someone who doesn’t flinch from standing with his allies, who doesn’t fear enemies, who doesn’t fear negative commentary…

Q: After two years of the U.S. Embassy being in Jerusalem, only Guatemala has a full-fledged embassy in Jerusalem. Aren’t you disappointed that other countries haven’t followed suit?

A: The hearts of many countries I’ve spoken with support moving. A lot of countries in the eastern part of Europe would have moved forward on this if it weren’t for the discipline that’s imposed from within the E.U., which makes it harder for people to pursue independent foreign policies. But I do think that will eventually come to fruition. And I think you’ll see more as well, perhaps in South America, Asia…

Q: Let’s move on to President Trump’s peace plan. Does Israel have the green light to apply sovereignty in six weeks?

A: [Right now] we have a conceptual map — it’s impossible to declare sovereignty from something that was so lacking in details. What we [the Trump administration] said was, when the mapping is done and when the government of Israel agrees that they will freeze the part of construction in Area C [of Judea and Samaria] that’s not set for sovereignty — make it available for four years — and when the prime minister agrees that he will negotiate with the Palestinians on the bases of the Trump peace plan — which he’s already agreed to, he agreed to it on the first day — when that happens, we will recognize Israel sovereignty over the area that the plan contemplates as part of Israel.

So, there’s really three things left that have to get done: The mapping has to get done, the [Israeli] government has to agree to the freeze on half of Area C, and most importantly, the government of Israel has to declare sovereignty.

We are not declaring sovereignty — the government of Israel has to declare sovereignty. And then we’re prepared to recognize it along those lines. As the secretary of state said, it’s Israel’s decision in the first place. So, you have to go first.

Q: When does the four-year countdown begin?

A: On the day that Israel begins to assert its sovereignty and declares the construction freeze in the areas agreed upon in Area C.

Q: Are there any additional terms or steps?

A: No.

Q: Not from you? Not from others in the administration?

A: The administration speaks in one voice. The terms written in the vision of peace are the conditions that are binding, and nobody has any intention of changing what is written.

Q: There are other reports suggesting that there is the new condition of an Israeli commitment to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

A: On that issue, the condition is that the prime minister will agree to negotiate with the Palestinians and invite the Palestinians to meet, to engage in discussions and keep those discussions open, and pursue them in good faith, for four years.

Q: He has actually already done so.

A: And he has to continue that. Right now, the Palestinians are not willing to come to the table, but if two years from now they come back and say, ‘Wait, we made a mistake and are willing to negotiate,’ he must be willing to sit and have those discussions. But it’s a finite amount of time, we want to keep that option [open] for four years. That’s the idea.

Q: Should it be a government decision, or is the prime minister’s statement sufficient?

A: From our perspective, the arrangement is with the State of Israel — the government of Israel — and not with anybody in particular. [However, regarding negotiations] there’s nothing to approve right now because the Palestinians haven’t agreed to any of the terms.

Q: Regarding the construction freeze you mentioned, are there any localities that cannot develop during these four years? Because, as far as I can see, the freeze doesn’t apply to the existing localities, only to open areas.

A: Yes, you’re mostly correct. There are three categories of territory in Area C. There’s the area that is populated by Jewish communities, and sovereignty allows these communities to grow significantly. That’s the majority — let’s call that 97 percent of the population — and in those areas there’s no restriction on growth. For example, Ariel will be the same as Tel Aviv [there will be no restriction]. So that’s category number one.

Category No. 2 is the half of Area C that will be reserved for the Palestinians [to be reserved for a Palestinian state for the allotted four years], and there will be no building there — from either side, Israelis or Palestinians.

Then there’s a third category, called the “enclaves” or the “bubbles.” This is three percent, the Jewish communities that are remote. And so, what happens to them is, Israel declares sovereignty over those communities, but they don’t expand — they can expand up but they can’t expand out. So as to the vast majority of settlements, the rules would be the same as [inside] the Green Line.

Q: What can you say about the mapping committee’s work?

A: The primary task belongs to the Israeli side because they’re the ones that have to come up with what’s best for the State of Israel. The overriding requirement [is] that the Israeli portion of Area C will not exceed 50 percent of Area C [which is] 30 percent of the West Bank. We’re talking and listening, and everyone understands that people on the Israeli side want to be ready to go July 1.

Q: What do you say to those who claim that the president’s peace plan “kills peace”?

A: We don’t agree with that at all. We’ve created a geographic footprint for the Palestinians, which is double [in areas] A and B right now. We’ve created the prospect for contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank, which Israel has no obligation to do — I mean it’s over Israeli sovereign territory. That’s a significant accomplishment to the extent that there is ever going to be a unified Palestinian people.

We’ve created the beginnings of an infrastructure fund that would grow dramatically if the Palestinians would come to the table and engage on this. … That’s further than anybody has gone before, by a mile.

This is an enormous opportunity that they shouldn’t give up, and I think most countries in the world recognize that. The ones that are clinging to the old way are doing so, to my view, for matters of perhaps pride, or maybe they own the old process … but the old process failed. It failed miserably. Most of the nations of the world did not condemn this [plan] at all; we had some excellent responses from many countries, including countries in the region.

Q: You are probably aware of the criticism from the Israeli right over the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu and you are setting up a Palestinian state.

A: I’ve had conversations with lots of people on the right. I have great respect for them and I understand their point of view very well, it’s a point of view that I share in many respects. But here are the facts that never go away: First is that nobody wants to establish sovereignty of the entirety of Judea and Samaria and provide citizenship to the millions of Palestinians that are there.

Second, there is no way in the modern world that a country, especially a country as great as Israel, could possibly have … two classes of citizens, where one votes and the other doesn’t. It can’t be done.

[People on the right] say they can’t agree to a Palestinian state, because the Palestinian state will be a terrorist state [that] will continue to threaten Israel, will continue to incite, pay terrorists, we can’t live with them.

I understand them, but [we are saying] you don’t have to live with that Palestinian state, you have to live with the Palestinian state when the Palestinians become Canadians. And when the Palestinians become Canadians all your issues should go away.

We are not going for the approach — and we’re serious — [that] administrations in the past [have, when they] were willing to overlook the risks of living side by side with the Palestinians.

The difference between us and everybody else is we don’t give anybody a pass. … [We will not recognize a state] that’s going to be a terrorist state or a theocracy or one that glorifies terrorism; we don’t want it for us, let alone Israel.

And Hebron, Shiloh, Beit El, Ariel — I mean these are not places people were talking about. Even people that were talking about the Gush and Ma’aleh Adumim … nobody ever talked about the biblical heartland of Israel. And part of it was because we [Americans] didn’t understand how important it is, to Israel. It’s unreasonable to ask Israel to give it up. It’s like asking the U.S. to give up the Statue of Liberty. It’s a small little thing, but we’re not giving it up, it’s very important to us. Or [the] Lincoln Memorial — at any price! Because it’s our national DNA. And [the same goes for] the Jewish people.

Q: The coronavirus crisis has increased the tension between the U.S. and China.

A: The one lesson we learned in America is to be more self-reliant. On essential materials, products and chemicals. If you go back to President Trump in 2016, [he] said before the election that the U.S. has exported way too much of its manufacturing offshore to China. We became seduced by cheap labor, and we gave all the manufacturing jobs away, and we hurt the country, we hurt the American worker. And that turned out to be pretty prophetic when you look where we are today. I don’t think he’s getting enough credit for that.

Q: So how do you recommend that Israel act in relation to China?

A: We have discussions with the Israeli government all the time; there was a recognition now about the dangers of becoming too reliant on China or allowing China to be a major player in strategic assets of the State of Israel. This applies to any other country as well.

Q: There are all kinds of reports of the so-called “Russian collusion story” attributed to President Trump in the 2016 election. Where do things stand now?

A: Trump has been fully exonerated. We are learning things now that are very disturbing about the way in which, in the early days of the administration, the president was treated by the FBI.

Q: Do you think President Trump is going to win the 2020 elections?

A: I certainly hope so. I think his record has been outstanding and I think that record merits another four years, and I hope that’s recognized by the U.S. electorate.

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