In December of 1988, during the last days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the United States publicly agreed to an official dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. This followed PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s renunciation of terrorism, acceptance of Israel’s right to exist, and endorsement of UN resolutions 242 and 338, after which the US accepted the PLO’s legitimacy. In effect, the PLO had conceded that 78 percent of what they considered to be historic Palestine was now Israel. They accepted that control of the “remaining” 22% — the West Bank and Gaza Strip — would be determined by negotiations.
The Palestinians had finally assented to the “land for peace” formula that had been adopted by the US, Israel, and the international community after the 1967 war. Now, almost 30 years later, this formula is being undermined by a figure who once would have seemed an unlikely culprit: the US ambassador to Israel.
Ambassador David Friedman, an avowed supporter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, recently made a number of shockingly false statements, the most potentially consequential being that “the settlements are part of Israel.” And it seems Friedman now has a supporter in Bloomberg journalist Eli Lake, who wrote last week that Friedman was “not wrong” about settlements.
Lake interprets Friedman’s words as referring only to “the Jewish population blocks in and around Jerusalem.” It’s a generous inference — Friedman simply said “the settlements” — that Lake explains by simply terming Friedman’s words “imprecise.” Yet Lake is similarly imprecise. He fails to mention that one of these blocs, Ariel, is actually a large settlement far north of Jerusalem that extends deep into the West Bank, or the fact that the settlement “blocs” – an informal term without any legal standing – are largely undefined.
It only gets more imprecise from there. To further defend Friedman’s remarks, Lake cites President George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stating that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” Lake quotes selectively, leaving out Bush’s acknowledgment that the recognized borders of Israel and an independent Palestinian state must “emerge from negotiations between the parties” and must be based on “mutually agreed changes.”
This leads right to the heart of the matter, and it’s the reason why Friedman’s statements are so dangerous to prospects for peace and damaging to the US role as arbiter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s encapsulated in a word with ramifications that Lake seems determined to ignore: “mutually.”
In this context, “mutually” does not refer to the joint opinion of the Israeli government and a settlements-supporting US ambassador, as Friedman would have it. It refers to Israel and the Palestinians, and it would involve roughly equivalent swaps of West Bank land for Israeli territory – territory that no US official has ever claimed to already be “part of Palestine.”
To assume, as Lake does, that the ever-expanding settlement blocs as presently (and vaguely) defined “will remain part of Israel in any final status deal” – implicitly supporting Ambassador Friedman’s claim that they already are part of Israel – is to undermine the entire “land for peace” formula. Friedman and Lake would seem to prefer the formula be “land for Israel, then land for peace.”
To support the idea that the settlement blocs are already part of Israeli territory, Lake references “more than 20 years” of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over borders and land swaps. But these negotiations were inconclusive, in part because the two sides could not agree on which settlement blocs would be part of the territory annexed by Israel. And it would indeed have to be annexed, since Israel itself has never officially asserted the claims that Friedman and Lake make regarding Israeli sovereignty over these areas.
Lake goes on to allege that “the U.S. broke precedent” under President Obama by abstaining from UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which, in fact, reaffirmed previous UN security council resolutions asserting that Israeli settlements have “no legal validity.” Obama – until then the only US president to have not allowed the passing of a single resolution opposed by Israel — was, if anything, adhering to precedent.
It was the incoming Trump administration that truly broke precedent by attempting to intervene in the affairs of a sitting administration and scuttle the tabling of the resolution – and it is the Trump administration that is breaking precedent now.
It’s not just the appointment of a US ambassador to Israel who has had a deep, abiding, financial and rhetorical commitment to the settlement enterprise and Greater Israel ideology. Possibly the most consequential shattering of precedent has been the Trump administration’s refusal to condemn settlements as an obstacle to peace or push back against their expansion. Now, there are even reports of Netanyahu claiming that the US has agreed to drop the distinction between settlement blocs and isolated settlements.
These reports accompanied this week’s announcement by Netanyahu’s government of the advancement of almost 4,000 new settlement homes, an announcement met by complete silence from the Trump administration. Many are planned for settlements deep in the West Bank, outside of the settlement blocs, such as Hebron and Beit El.
It’s hard to imagine that Ambassador Friedman — the former president of the American Friends of Beit El — wasn’t satisfied by the news.