This past Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump told Israel that it too would need to make “significant compromises” for peace with the Palestinians. All of this comes amid accusations of pro-Israeli bias against one of his Middle East envoys, US Ambassador David Friedman. Several months after the initial outrage caused by Trump’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, President Trump, in an interview with an Israeli conservative newspaper, Israel Hayom daily, that was excerpted ahead of its full publication on Sunday, described his Jerusalem move as a “high point” of his first year in office.
The language of the announcement did not rule out a presence in Jerusalem for the Palestinians, who see east Jerusalem as their own capital—at the time of writing they are seeking to bring in other world powers to mediate in the peace process, as a result, Trump’s move which has done much to overturn decades of US policy regarding Jerusalem’s status. In remarks published in Hebrew, Trump said that he “wanted to make clear that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel” Regarding specific borders, he said would grant his “support to what the two sides agree between themselves.” Trump also added that “both sides will have to make significant compromises in order for achieving a peace deal to be possible.”
The interview in question coincided with renewed tensions between the Palestinians and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who has enjoyed a rather fractious relationship with the Palestinians, long before he was first appointed to his post. The latest controversy has to do with the killing by a Palestinian of a Jewish settler, Rabbi Itamar Ben-Gal, by an Israeli-Arab citizen who managed to escape on foot. After the settler was stabbed to death last Monday, Mr. Friedman tweeted that he had previously donated an ambulance to the slain man’s community and that he was praying for the next-of-kin, adding: “Palestinian ‘leaders’ have praised the killer,” —a comment that drew a rebuke from President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, who said the Ambassador Friedman’s “statements make us,” the Palestinians, “wonder about his relationship with the occupation.”
It should be pointed out, that the ‘leaders’ Mr. Friedman was referring to are Hamas, whose spokesman praised the stabbing, saying it was a “continuation of the resistance to Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.” Mr. Abu Rdainah then asked, “Is he representing America or Israel?” before adding that “Friedman’s recommendations and advice, which do not aim to achieve a just peace on the basis of international legitimacy, are what led to this crisis in American-Palestinian relations.”
Mr. Friedman, who was among the top Trump advisers who promoted the Jerusalem move, was up until his confirmation by Congress, a significant contributor to settler causes—he helped to raise millions of dollars each year for the controversial Beil El settlement when he was president of the “American Friends of Beit El Institutions.” And now, in his role as ambassador, he is the Trump administration’s eyes and ears on the ground (in Israel). What he relays to the White House concerning his interactions with both the Israelis and the Palestinians helps to shape US’ policy concerning Israeli-Palestinian relations.
His comments regarding the killing of the Jewish settler did not end with a tweet aimed at the “Palestinian leaders.” In response to a Haaretz newspaper column criticizing his stance and dubbing the settlement he had supported as “a mountain of curses”—a play on its Hebrew name, Har Bracha, which means “Mount Blessing”—Ambassador Friedman fired back with a tweet: “Four young children are sitting shiva (Jewish mourning rite) for their murdered father….Have they (Haaretz) no decency?” To this, Haaretz’s publisher, Amos Schocken, responded with a tweeted critique of his own that echoed Palestinian complaints: “As long as the policy of Israel that your Government and yourself support is obstructing (the) peace process … there will be more Shivas.”
Haaretz, it is worth mentioning, is a liberal Israeli newspaper, meaning its stance toward Mr. Friedman’s more rightwing attitudes regarding the settlement is unsurprising, to say the least. But the ambassador’s response and most of the controversies he’s been involved so far feed into the notion that his political positions are too aligned with the current Israeli government.
Based on the abovementioned controversies surrounding Mr. Friedman and the Jerusalem decision—which has driven a wedge between the Palestinians and the Trump administration—it is difficult to see (going back to the issue of Trump’s promise of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal) how both the Israelis and Palestinians would be willing to accede to President Trump’s call for a compromise from both sides.
For that to happen, the US together with the Palestinians and Israelis would need to foster a new relationship—absent of the kind of missteps which have characterized President Trump’s attempts at achieving the ultimate peace deal. And the decision to appoint Mr. Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel surely hinders that process, when you take into consideration some of his past statements regarding Israel: back in September he referred to the situation in the Palestinian territories as “an alleged occupation.” He is also opposed to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has called it “an illusory solution in search of a non-existent problem.”
Those comments alone help to fuel perceptions of pro-Israeli bias, which in turn hinders any possibility of building trust with the Palestinian leadership and further politicizes what is one of the most sensitive diplomatic posts in the world. Perhaps this appointment and the other missteps by the Trump administration are a direct result of the lack of wider diplomatic experience throughout the administration itself. One can only hope that the present situation will help the administration develop a deeper appreciation of the intricacies of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Doing so would better equip the US, which still sees itself as a partner for peace, to bring all sides a step closer to restarting the peace process.
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