Sunday, January 10, 2021

  • Sunday, January 10, 2021
  • Elder of Ziyon

David Halbfinger of the New York Times held a long interview US ambassador David Friedman. It was too long for his article so he created two threads on Twitter to fill it out.

While Halbfinger’s bias shines through – especially with the comments he chose to highlight  on Twitter – it is a very worthwhile interview to read.

I edited it somewhat to make it more readable.



Thanks to @USAmbIsrael David Friedman for his time: The interview ran more than 2 hours. Lots of important/interesting stuff didn’t make it into piece. But for students of the conflict, it’s worth setting down some of that here.


Straining credulity, he insisted there’d been no pressure campaign vs. the Palestinians. “I would call it minimal accountability, not maximum pressure,” he said — “holding them accountable to sort of basic norms of conduct.”

E.g., after PA President. Mahmoud Abbas defied Congress and urged the the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israelis, allowing the PLO mission to remain in Washington would have required the administration to defy Congress, too. “None of us wanted to shut down the mission,” Friedman said.

Similarly, he argued that attacking UNRWA was not tantamount to harming the Palestinians, it was about defunding a “corrupt, decidedly unhelpful” agency that “perpetuates rather than relieves” suffering.

“Almost every single thing that was adverse to the Palestinians by way of aid was completely avoidable” had they conformed to U.S. laws, he said: “These were all unforced errors on their part.”

A product of the 5 Towns, he saw Palestinians through a lens refracted by having lived through periods of great tension in NYC.
Arguing that people mistakenly saw Israel as the “stronger party” with the “greater demands,” vs. the “poor and underrepresented” Palestinians, he called that “nonsense.”

“I mean, Israel's militarily stronger. If they weren't, they wouldn't exist. But from a perspective of the world, I mean, [the Palestinians] had this scheme going for a generation, of kind of holding the Arab street hostage throughout the world and people had to, you know, kind of show and pay homage in order to — it reminded me a lot of what @TheRevAl Sharpton used to do, where he would go threaten boycotts of various industrial companies unless they would hire him to teach the companies diversity programs. He'd get paid a lot of money, and then he wouldn't do a boycott. It's a great scam. And that's the way the Middle East used to work. And that just had to be broken.”

Another LI-NYC reference: Despite what many have called the unworkability of the Trump map, Friedman said: “We spent months working on ways to achieve contiguity. You can drive from Hebron to Nablus and never see an Israeli.” He recalled that when he worked in Manhattan, “I used to take the Midtown Tunnel to work every day. If you tell me that there's a river, that I go under a river, I don't know that. I never saw the river once. I drove under that thing for 30 years, never saw a river. So I take it on faith that there's an East River. I'm just saying that we created enough contiguity so that Palestinians could go throughout the West Bank without ever coming face-to-face with the Israelis.”

He said Israeli officials did not help write the Trump peace plan, though they were consulted about it often. “The editorial control was always ours,” he said. “This was entirely authored by us and almost entirely conceptualized by us.”

Having clashed with Tillerson, he clicked with Pompeo, and worked for a year on the overhaul of settlements policy later dubbed the “Pompeo doctrine.” Peace talks would only gain traction with the Israeli right, he said, if Israel could come to the table “without the accusation that somehow it’s a thief and being asked to return things that it stole. Israel will not and should not come to the table on the basis of being an illegal occupier of stolen land.”

He said it was pointless for U.S. to ask Israel for a settlement freeze, “because for them, I think a freeze of construction is the acknowledgment that the land doesn’t belong to them.”
Still, he denied there was a U.S. interest in expansion of settlements with one exception: “It’s important to send a message to the Palestinian terror apparatus that their efforts will fail” by “expanding a settlement in a place where they commit an act of terror,” he said. “That’s a very specific message that I endorse.”

He said history had shown that, contrary to the arguments of critics of the occupation, “the status quo is not unsustainable, but I think the status quo is suboptimal and should be.”
(NB: "Suboptimal" is a signature word.)

Yet, Friedman said that endless subjugation of the Palestinians posed no threat to Israeli democracy. “I don’t think it has anything to do with Israel’s democracy because Israel’s democracy is the function of the citizens, and these are not citizens of Israel.”

Some Israeli critics have faulted him for outflanking Netanyahu from the right, e.g., by endorsing maximalist Israeli positions on refugees and Jerusalem without the caveats that Israeli officials usually add to preserve maneuvering room. This, they warn, may have created unrealistic expectations among the Israeli public about what can be achieved. Friedman did not dispute this: “That may have been an unintended consequence” of articulating what he thought were “achievable compromises,” he said.

He acknowledged denouncing Palestinian violence often, and Israeli violence rarely, but said this was because Palestinian acts of terrorism were “rewarded” by Palestinian leaders. Jewish terrorism, he asserted, was condemned by the Israeli government. (Condemnation of attacks on Palestinians is actually quite rare.) But he expressed confidence in the Israeli justice system to prosecute Jewish attackers: “I’m not looking to put my finger on the scale,” he said.

On the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the Trump peace plan held a contradiction: The status quo — Muslim prayer only, other faiths can visit but not pray — should “continue uninterrupted” and be “preserved”; but “people of every faith should be permitted to pray” there.  Last year, Friedman clarified that the White House hoped this would happen by agreement, but wouldn't impose it. But then UAE and Bahrain peace deals stated that Muslims may pray “at al-Aqsa Mosque, and Jerusalem’s other holy sites should remain open for peaceful worshippers of all faiths.”

Careful readers like @DanielSeidemann noted this could reduce Muslim exclusive to the mosque, but leave rest of Temple Mount open to Jewish prayer — shattering status quo and fulfilling longstanding Muslim fears. I asked @USAmbIsrael if he disagreed with that reading.

“No,” he said, “but I think it remains aspirational. But I don’t disagree with the language.” He went on to acknowledge the “sensitivities." "Aspirationally, we would like to get to a place of greater openness. But we’re not there yet. We’re not going to force it.”

Asked if he favored giving the Saudis a role on the Temple Mount as an incentive to normalize with Israel, he said he had “never thought of that at all,” acknowledged that would pose a threat to Jordan and said “I have no interest in picking a fight with anybody.”

Trading annexation for normalization was a “no-brainer” because it was only suspended. A more permanent abandonment of the idea, he would not have supported, he suggested, making clear his views of land-for-peace:

“I don’t think it would’ve been appropriate for Israel to, especially without the consensus of the Israeli population, to just give up territory permanently for any agreement with another country,” he said.

He volunteered no mistakes. Despite having been outlasted now by Abbas, and had no dialogue with the P.A., he did not second-guess the decision to close Jerusalem consulate and downgrade U.S. mission to the Palestinians.  He said it ended the situation of “two missions essentially in the same country reporting back to Washington with conflicting views, with no obligation that they reconcile those things.” Now, that was done inside the Embassy, he said, and “I don’t put my thumb on the scale. You know, I want to hear all the views that I would sort of reflexively disagree with. If I’m missing something, I want to hear it.”

He had an interesting take on this 2010 friction (…) between Biden and Netanyahu over a settlement announcement:


“The reality here is whenever under the last administration somebody of significance came to visit, the Israeli left would immediately publicize whatever they could find in terms of settlement expansion, to create that friction," he said.  “I mean, there was an attempt to create that friction. It was strategic friction. Our view is this doesn’t help, we don’t need to have this.”

Instead, he said, he agreed with the Israelis that they should build “from the inside out” — to expand settlements “with the least amount of damage to the overall footprint. And that’s how they’ve been operating over the last four years.”

He lavished praise on Netanyahu, singling out his ability to “compartmentalize” and maintain “disciplined, objective, strategic thinking in times of stress.” But said he would have worked as closely with another PM, even a lefty.

“I have deep disagreements with the Israel left, but I have deep respect for the Israel left because I think that the Israel left, you know, they put their money where their mouth is: They send their kids to the army, they pay their taxes, they live in this area, they take the risks. They have a view as to how the Zionist dream should be actualized and they’re entitled to it. Very different than I have a view of the American left, who I think really are not sufficiently educated on the subject and aren’t willing to take the risks.So, I mean, if the American left is wrong, they don’t suffer.” 

Finally, there's talk of his forming an Israel-based pro-settlement group. He hinted: “I will stay in the space somehow, but I just don’t know how,” he said. “I’ll try to maintain a voice. I mean, it’s a huge drop-off when you no longer have access to the president.”


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Elder of Ziyon - حـكـيـم صـهـيـون

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