The US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an interesting personality – a bankruptcy lawyer turned diplomat by a thoroughly eccentric US president. Not only is he a strong and unabashed advocate of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, he is a strong proponent of Israeli annexation of as much Palestinian territory by Israel, as soon as permissible, with the blessing of the US.
Since the unveiling of the Trump peace plan in January, Friedman had to be frequently reined in by Jared Kushner, the US president’s son-in-law and senior advisor from wrecking Kushner’s regional plan of brokering peace agreements between Israel and Arab countries. He is blunt and outspoken and accords himself more power than previous US ambassadors to Israel.
In an interview with Israel Hayom published Thursday, Ambassador Friedman was asked whether the US is “considering the possibility of appointing Mohammed Dahlan as the next Palestinian leader.” In the original article, Friedman was quoted as responding that the US was “thinking about it.”
Friedman soon claimed that he was misquoted by Israel Hayom and a correction followed. The article now presents Friedman’s response as “‘We’re not thinking about it,’ we have no desire to engineer the Palestinian leadership.” (Emphasis mine.)
Whether the ambassador’s initial statement was a trial balloon to gauge reaction to the idea of replacing Abbas or a mere editor’s error, the initial version provoked wide condemnation in the Palestinian arena, including from Dahlan himself. Dahlan, who established the Democratic Reformists Current (DRC) within Fatah and resides in Abu Dhabi, said that he “rejected and condemned” the ambassador’s remarks. “The Palestinian people are the only ones who choose their leaders through the ballot boxes,” he added.
And, in unambiguous criticism of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the current Palestinian leadership, Dahlan added, “I believe that Palestine urgently needs to renew legitimacy for its leaders and institutions, and this will not be achieved except through comprehensive, transparent national elections.” Dahlan added, “We have demanded several times and are still calling for holding presidential and legislative elections, which have not been held for more than 15 years.”
In apparent retaliation by the Abbas-led PA, its security forces began a campaign Monday aimed at arresting Dahlan’s known allies within Fatah, including high-ranking officials and other sympathizers in the West Bank.
Breaking the sovereignty taboo?
In the same Israel Hayom interview, the ambassador said something of great significance. He said that after pushing the peace initiative forward and fully capitalizing on it, he believes that the “sovereignty issue [for the Palestinians] can be revisited in a manner that will be less controversial.” A close analysis of this statement, coming from a hawk like Friedman, suggests a significant shift in the United States’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the Palestinians even within the context of Trump’s peace proposal.
One can attribute this shift to the commitment the UAE secured from the United States in return for signing the peace agreement with Israel not to allow Israel to move forward with the annexation of large chunks of the West Bank. Without Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank, a major cornerstone of the Trump peace plan that the Palestinians and most of the world objected to was removed. This change altered the fabric of the Trump peace plan in a fundamental manner. Taking out annexation, which had been a cornerstone of the Trump peace plan, removed the part of the agreement that the Palestinians and most of the world objected to.
The majority of Israelis, when given the choice between peace or the annexation of parts of the West Bank including settlements, favored peace. Only the extreme right wing that Benjamin Netanyahu has needed for his election cared deeply about settlements and annexation. Without the looming threat of annexation, the prospects of a peace deal with the Palestinians have improved dramatically.
And, as recently as last Thursday, a bipartisan group of influential US House representatives introduced new legislation that stresses “strong support for a negotiated solution to the conflict resulting in two states – a democratic Jewish State of Israel, and a viable, democratic Palestinian state – living side-by-side in peace, security, and mutual recognition.” J Street, the pro-Israel, pro-two-state organization, warned shortly thereafter that a “comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors in the Arab world will only be achieved through an agreement that resolves the issues at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Ambassador Friedman may have inadvertently triggered discussions on core issues that could eventually lead to a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He addressed the issue of Palestinian leadership and made reference to the absence of crucial elections to allow Palestinians to freely elect their new leaders, hopefully leaders with foresight, vision and a well-studied strategy.
He also made clear that the UAE’s success in imposing a halt on Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank might have paved the way for Palestinian sovereignty to be “revisited in a manner that will be less controversial.” A bipartisan group of key US representatives reaffirmed, on the same day as the ambassador’s controversial remarks, their support of the two-state solution. And, he indisputably made clear that the one who ultimately decides US policy on peace in the Middle East is Jared Kushner and not the ambassador.