Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has referred to the situation in the Palestinian territories as “an alleged occupation”, in an apparent break from US foreign policy and mainstream international opinion.
Talking to the Jerusalem Post in his first major interview with the Israeli media, Friedman appeared to adopt a stance more in line with Israeli settlers, of whom he has been a high-profile supporter.
One of the two journalists who conducted the interview confirmed to the Guardian that Friedman had been accurately quoted. A US official insisted that Friedman’s comments did not mark a change in US policy.
Demanding clarification from the US a Palestinian official said: “Our understanding is that when someone has an official position, like being an ambassador, this person does no longer speak in a personal capacity. Mr Friedman should realise that denying facts doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. He has an extensive record of attacks against the national rights of the Palestinian people, including funding illegal colonial-settlements and participating in celebrations of the Israeli occupation. We call upon the US administration to clarify their position.”
The legal status of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem – captured during the six-day war in 1967 – is recognised by the United Nations, most countries and by Israel itself in its use of institutions such as military courts to try Palestinians in the West Bank.
The US state department itself also refers unambiguously to the “occupied territories” in its own reports, including in a human rights report earlier this year.
Friedman has kept a relatively low profile since arriving in Israel earlier this year. His appointment had been met with a chorus of criticism over his suitability for such a sensitive diplomatic post given his complete lack of foreign service experience and his history of supporting far-right Israeli causes, including the hardline settlement at Beit El.
The US ambassador’s comment follows hard on the heels of recent remarks by state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, who said a recommittal by the Trump administration to the two-state solution would show “bias” to one side.
Before taking up his post Friedman also voiced opposition to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine crisis.
In the interview with the Jerusalem Post Friedman suggested that his personal views had not much changed and while his tone may have softened his ideology had not.
“I don’t want to suggest that my views have really changed very much. Maybe the rhetoric has changed,” he told the paper.
“Obviously, you become a diplomat. You change your rhetoric. You have an official job. You work for the United States government. You respect the chain of command.
Of course that’s different.”
Friedman – a former bankruptcy lawyer for Trump – has called President Barack Obama an antisemite and suggested that US Jews who opposed the Israeli occupation of the West Bank were worse than kapos, Nazi-era prisoners who served as concentration camp guards.
When he was announced as ambassador designate, liberal Jewish groups in the US denounced his appointment as “reckless”, describing Friedman as the “least experienced pick” ever for a US ambassador to Israel.
Although the Trump administration has adopted a less harsh tone since his inauguration as president, promises that his officials could deliver the “ultimate” peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians have failed to materialise.
Ahead of his arrival in Israel, Friedman was one of the most vocal supporters in Trump’s circle of the controversial plan to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a plan Trump has put on ice on for now.
Responding to a Guardian query about Friedman’s remark – and whether it marked a shift in US policy – a US official said: “The ambassador’s comment in the interview does not represent a shift in US policy.
“President Trump has made clear that it is a top priority for him to work toward achieving a comprehensive and lasting peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. He remains optimistic that progress to that can be achieved.”
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