The interview with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was not held at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, despite the fact that he recently inducted a stunning new office in the embassy complex. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the meeting took place in the car park of the ambassador’s home in Herzliya, among security gates and diplomatic vehicles—a rather unusual background for an interview marking two years to the historic relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
It is also safe to say that Friedman’s ambassadorship will be equally historic. His first year in office, 2017, was dedicated to pushing U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In 2018, he followed that with efforts to see the United States recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and 2019-2020 have been dedicated to pushing the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” vision.
Many minds had to be put at ease along the way, and many myths and prejudices had to be debunked, but at the end of the day, he has done everything he can. The ball is now in Israel’s court.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee former vice president Joe Biden, I remind him, said this week that if elected, he would not reverse the embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem. Does that mean it will stay there forever? Friedman said he hopes so, but added that “in my view of Jewish history, nothing can be taken for granted.”
In any case, said Friedman, he derives great satisfaction from people’s reactions to the move, especially those of Holocaust survivors.
“One thing that I really get satisfaction from is the reaction from ordinary people that cared about this for so many years, and never thought it would happen. Especially, what really has given me a great sense of achievement is when I talk to Holocaust survivors. They look at this and say this is such an act of kindness, loyalty, and support and [they] are so glad we lived to see it.”
Q: Looking back over the past two years, 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—because you agreed to do it, you promised to do it. When you keep your promise, I think those are all benefits in and of themselves. I think that in addition to those things, the move of the embassy [to Jerusalem] 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: He’s prepared to do what he thinks is right. I think that image of the president has been helpful to the president and the country in terms of moving forward with our foreign policy in other places as well.
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: Well, what I’ve learned is a couple of things: Number one, Israel doesn’t have a friend like the U.S. Second, I think there are other countries that do make calculations about what they’ll gain and what they’ll lose, and I think that process is taking some time. The hearts of many countries I’ve spoken with support moving. Frankly, there are a lot of countries in the eastern part of Europe that 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. There are lots of conversations still going on, it’s just that it takes a little bit of time.
Q: Has it been decided where in Jerusalem the new embassy will stand? There is a proposal to keep the current location, but there is also a plan to erect a new building in Hebron Road in the city.
A: I don’t think so, it’s still being considered. Right now the embassy is in a beautiful location. It’s on I think over 70 dunams [17 acres] of land, with beautiful views. We have a beautiful facility—we put some work into it over the past year, my office as you know was expanded, the other office was expanded, and that in conjunction with what we have on Agron Street gives us enough space to have a significant operation there. Beyond that, we are still thinking of perhaps consolidating everything in one location.
Q: Let’s move on to President Trump’s peace plan, and the issue of applying Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria: Does Israel have the green light to apply sovereignty in six weeks?
A: [Right now] we have a conceptual map—it’s conceptual; 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 sovereignty, 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?
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: Will a fourth election affect the sovereignty moves or are those two separate issues?
A: No one on my side has approached or confronted that issue, so the answer is I don’t know. Obviously, the document itself does not have any link [to a fourth election], it would not be altered by a fourth election based on what the document says.
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 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], 30 percent of the West Bank. We’re talking and listening, and everyone understands that come July, certainly 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 [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. We’ve identified the changes that would have to occur within Palestinian society and government in order for this to work—we are not ignoring the fact that Palestinians continue to pay terrorists or continue to incite violence. 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 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 [Benjamin] 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. If they can’t achieve those milestones in the plan, we will be the last ones to encourage Israel. We have no interest in recognizing any state that doesn’t reach those milestones anywhere around the world. [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, which you could get even some Democratic administration to talk about the possibility, but nobody ever talked about the biblical heartland of Israel. And part of it was because we 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.
This article originally appeared in Israel Hayom.
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