NY Times ‘Fake news’? US ambassador didn’t endorse unilateral annexation

June 13, 2019


[Note by Tom Gross]

There has been substantial pushback across the Israeli and American Jewish media (including in Haaretz) against the New York Times in the last two days, for what has been called the “disgraceful” misrepresentation of U.S. Ambassador David Friedman’s remarks in an interview with New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger.

Both Halbfinger and his editors and headline writers at the Times are being criticized for badly misleading readers in a piece of “fake news” that has, in turn, been picked up and copied from the Times in hundreds of other publications across the world.

Halbfinger’s headline and article began: “Israel has a right to annex at least some, but ‘unlikely all,’ of the West Bank, the United States ambassador, David M. Friedman, said in an interview, opening the door to American acceptance of what would be an enormously provocative act.”

Yes, as is pointed out in the articles attached below from Haaretz and other publications, Friedman never said the word “annexation.” Nor did he say anything different from long-standing international policy to try and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As the articles below point out, what Friedman said was consistent with the policy of US presidents dating back to Lyndon Johnson in 1967. It is consistent with the policy of the Soviet Union/Russia and much of the rest of the world which supported the key UN 1967 Security Council Resolution 242 that envisaged border adjustments in order to bring about lasting peace and security. It is consistent with the words of the president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

It is consistent with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ acknowledgement that land swaps will be necessary in any final agreement and that Israel has the right to keep Jerusalem’s Western Wall and other parts of terroritory beyond the 1948 armistice lines.

No serious observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could imagine sustainable peace existing along the exact 1948 armistice lines. Hence resolution 242.

The leading left-wing Israeli paper Haaretz has now acknowledged that it also misrepresented the US’s ambassador’s remarks (after it first rushed to follow the New York Times’s lead). Will the New York Times have the integrity also to do so?




What Did U.S. Ambassador David Friedman Say That Was New?
By Dore Gold
June 12, 2019

It is hard to understand the outrage in Haaretz in response to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, who voiced support for Israel retaining a portion of the West Bank. After all, historically, U.S. policy always left open this very possibility. This was the heart of the debate between American President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin in 1967 over whether the draft resolution that was to become UN Security Council Resolution 242 should include the definitive article in the withdrawal clause requiring a withdrawal from “the territories,” as Moscow required, or just a withdrawal “from territories,” as Washington suggested.

The way Washington kept the door of territorial modifications open expressed itself in different ways. With the opening of the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, President George H. W. Bush spoke about there needing to be a “territorial compromise,” but not a full withdrawal. In his 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, President George W. Bush spoke about a full and complete return to the 1967 lines as being “unrealistic.” Like President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, Bush declared that Israel had a right to “defensible borders.”

What seems to offend the author of Haaretz’s critique of Friedman the most is his assertion about Israel’s rights. The article tells Haaretz readers that Israel has no legal rights to any of the territories it captured in 1967. The most important legal analysis of this question, in fact, was written in 1980 by Stephen Schwebel, who would become the Legal Adviser to the Department of State and subsequently president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Schwebel did not doubt Israel’s rights; looking purely at the legal side, he wrote, “… Israel has better title in the territory of what was Palestine, including the whole of Jerusalem, than do Jordan and Egypt.” In short, by suggesting Israel had legal rights to retain some West Bank land, Friedman was not very far away from a traditional American view that appeared in previous public statements.

Haaretz then raises the possibility that Friedman was speaking merely of Israel’s historical rights, implying to the reader that this provides no relevant rationale for the Jewish people’s presence. This approach ignores the fact that Israel’s roots as our people’s historical homeland are recognized in a chain of international documents, beginning with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and in the 1922 document instating the British Mandate – a legally binding treaty – which recognized the Jewish people’s historical connection with their land. This documented recognition culminated in 1948, when the very opening sentence of Israel’s Declaration of Independence duly noted the Land of Israel as the historical and spiritual birthplace of the Jewish people.

(Dore Gold is a former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a long time subscriber to this Mideast list.)



Trump’s Ambassador Is Right on Israel’s Annexation. His Posturing, pro-Palestinian Critics Are Wrong
David Friedman is right: International law supports Israel retaining some of the West Bank. I should know – I helped draft it
By Alan Dershowitz
June 12, 2019

The United States Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman has been criticized for making the following statement:

“Under certain circumstances, I think that Israel has the right to retain some, but not all, of the West Bank.” His critics, including Haaretz, argue that Israel has no such right under international law because “this is occupied territory that cannot be annexed.”

Friedman is correct and his critics are wrong.

I know, because I participated – albeit in a small way – in the drafting of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 back in 1967, when Justice Arthur Goldberg was the United States Representative to the United Nations. I had been Justice Goldberg’s law clerk, and was then teaching at Harvard Law School. Justice Goldberg asked me to come to New York to advise him on some of the legal issues surrounding the West Bank.

The major controversy was whether Israel had to return “all” the territories captured in its defensive war against Jordan, or only some of the territories.

The end result was that the binding English version of the United Nations Resolution deliberately omitted the crucial word “all,” and substituted the word “territories,” which both Justice Goldberg and British Ambassador Lord Caradon publicly stated meant that Israel was entitled to retain some of the West Bank.

Moreover, under Resolution 242, Israel was not required to return a single inch of captured territory unless its enemies recognized its right to live within secure boundaries.

Friedman is right, therefore, in these two respects: (1) Israel has no right to retain all of the West Bank, if its enemies recognize its right to live within secure borders; (2) Israel has “the right to retain some” of these territories. The specifics – the amount and location – are left to negotiation between the parties.

In the last month of the Obama administration, President Obama pushed through a Security Council Resolution that declared all of the captured territories – including the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter and the access roads to Hebrew University and Israel’s main Hadassah Hospital – to be illegally occupied territories.

That benighted resolution was categorically and correctly rejected by Israel. It does not represent binding international law, and virtually no one believes that the Western Wall is being illegally occupied by Israel. Indeed, every world leader who has visited Israel – including Obama – have prayed at this illegally “occupied” sacred place.

The reality is that Israel will, under any circumstances, maintain control over these traditionally Jewish areas, as well as the settlement blocks close to the Green Line. How do I know this? Because Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has told me on more than one occasion when we have met.

Abbas wants this to occur as a result of negotiations, but he knows that any negotiation will produce Israeli sovereignty over these areas. The problem is that Abbas now refuses to accept the invitations by President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sit down and negotiate these issues.

The attack on Ambassador Friedman is mere posturing by the Palestinian leaders and their supporters. The realpolitik, recognized by all reasonable people, is that Israel does have a right to retain some, but not all, of the West Bank.

In 2000-2001 the Palestinians were offered a deal in which they would control more than 90 percent of the West Bank. In 2008, they were offered an even more generous deal. In both such deals, and most likely in the one now being drafted by the Trump administration, the Palestinians will get Israeli land equivalent to the West Bank land that Israel will annex. The Palestinians have either rejected or refused to negotiated over these offers.

So when Ambassador Friedman talks about “certain circumstances” that would lead Israel to “retain some” of the West Bank, he is likely referencing circumstances under which the Palestinians would persist in their refusing to come to the bargaining table, thus maintaining the status quo.

The Palestinians can end this untenable status quo by agreeing to compromise their absolutist claims, just as Israel will have to comprise its absolutist claims. The virtue of Ambassador Friedman’s statement is that it recognizes that both sides must give up their absolutist claims, and that the end result must be Israeli control over some, but not all, of the West Bank.

Ambassador Friedman’s statement is not a barrier to peace or negotiations. It is a realistic recognition of what Israel will demand, and to what the Palestinians will ultimately have to agree, regarding territorial compromise.

(Alan Dershowitz is one of Harvard University’s leading law professors, and is a longtime subscriber to this Mideast list.)



Fake news? David Friedman didn’t endorse annexation
Contrary to the way a “New York Times” interview has been reported, Israel retaining the right to some of the West Bank has been U.S. policy long before Trump.
By Jonathan Tobin
June 11, 2019

The New York Times got quite a scoop when, in an interview with its Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that he favored Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. That was the lede of Halbfinger’s article, as well as in the headline. And that was also the way the story was played in virtually every one of the many publications that picked up on the story.

If true, that would be big news indeed. But there are two problems with the way the interview has been reported. The first is that Halbfinger didn’t publish a quote from Friedman in which he actually said the word “annexation.” The second is that what he did say has actually been U.S. policy for more than 20 years. In other words, in the disturbing phrase that has become all too much part of our public discourse in the last few years, the widely reported claim that the Trump administration just endorsed Israeli annexation of the West Bank appears to be “fake news.”

Halbfinger’s article began with the following assertion: “Israel has a right to annex at least some, but ‘unlikely all,’ of the West Bank, the United States ambassador, David M. Friedman, said in an interview, opening the door to American acceptance of what would be an enormously provocative act.”

That assertion is backed up by only one line of the article in which Friedman is quoted as saying, “Under certain circumstances,” Mr. Friedman said, “I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”

Friedman didn’t say the word “annexation.” It’s Halbfinger who uses the word in his narrative. But in what he otherwise describes as a “wide-ranging interview,” he can’t supply a single quote to specifically back up the one newsworthy aspect of the piece.

That’s important because although the transcript was not published, Halbfinger probably gave Friedman many opportunities to say “annexation.” But he got not a single quote with the key word escaping Friedman’s lips.

The possibility of annexation has been in the news because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at it in an interview prior to the April 9 general elections.

Netanyahu promised that he would extend Israeli law to the settlements, even though that meant nothing since Israeli law is already applied there. It was a gesture aimed at winning some pro-settlement votes.

But when his pro-annexation allies sought to translate that vague promise into tangible results during the post-election coalition negotiations, it’s been widely reported that Netanyahu made it clear they were wasting their time. The prime minister had zero interest in doing anything that might be perceived as undermining a Trump peace plan. Which is to say there will be no annexation anytime soon, if ever.

Yet it’s also true that Friedman is a longtime supporter of the settlement movement, meaning that he likely would personally welcome Israeli holding on to as much of the West Bank as it could. But the one comment that Friedman made in his interview that seemed to directly address annexation was actually equivocal: “Mr. Friedman declined to say how the United States would respond if Mr. Netanyahu moved to annex West Bank land unilaterally. ‘We really don’t have a view until we understand how much, on what terms, why does it make sense, why is it good for Israel, why is it good for the region, why does it not create more problems than it solves,’ Mr. Friedman said. ‘These are all things that we’d want to understand, and I don’t want to prejudge.’ “

Which shows that despite the fact that he is a diplomatic novice, Friedman knows how to obfuscate and not answer questions as well as any State Department veteran.

So despite the claim that Friedman endorsed annexation, Halbfinger’s article proved nothing of the kind.

But there’s another important point that was lost in the rush to put words in Friedman’s mouth and to condemn the Trump administration for allegedly overturning decades of U.S. policy. It’s that it has been official U.S. policy for more than 20 years that Israel has “the right to retain some” of the West Bank.

That was the formula for peace pursued by the Washington at the Camp David summit in July 2000 when President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered PLO chairman Yasser Arafat an independent state in most of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. But part of that plan, which Arafat turned down, was that Israeli would retain some of the West Bank. It would be repeated in all future peace negotiations carried out under George W. Bush and even Barack Obama.

Bush put it in writing in a letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004 prior to the withdrawal from Gaza in which he assured the Israelis that they could count on U.S. support for holding onto Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement blocs.

So the argument that Friedman said something worthy of his being fired – as some on the left have claimed – is as absurd as it is outrageous.

What his critics really can’t stand about Friedman is that he is willing to say that the West Bank or any other part of the country isn’t “Palestinian territory” but disputed land, and that Israel can assert its rights as well as its security needs in any negotiation. He’s right about that. And he’s also right that the United States is not opposed to Israel holding on to at least some of the West Bank in the event of a theoretical peace agreement that the Palestinians clearly have no interest in negotiating, let alone signing.

The fact that both the Times and those who repeated Halbfinger’s spin have misreported this interview, in addition to the facts about established American policy under the last four presidents, is more evidence of the partisanship and declining ethical standards in so much of the contemporary news media.



Friedman’s ‘controversial’ comments do not diverge from traditional US policy
By Herb Keinon
Jerusalem Post
June 11, 2019

Haaretz said on Monday that US Ambassador David Friedman represents the settler Right, Peace Now called for his immediate dismissal, and the Palestinian Authority – whose leader once referred to him as the “son of a dog” – said it was weighing whether his “racist rhetoric” was grounds to file a complaint with the International Criminal Court.

Why? Because in an interview with The New York Times, Friedman said, “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”

Friedman neither said the word “annex” nor “unilateral” in the interview, but all of a sudden his words were taken as if the Trump administration had suddenly given Israel a green light to annex the West Bank, something that Netanyahu put squarely on the agenda in the days leading up to the April 9 election when he said this was something he might consider.

Friedman also did not say how much of the West Bank Israel could retain. “Some” of the West Bank could range from the Western Wall to all of Area C.

The ambassador’s remarks came during a “wide-ranging” interview with the Times, and it is safe to assume that he neither knew exactly which questions he would be asked – though he probably had a good idea, considering this was not his first interview – nor that his remarks were cleared in advanced by the White House.

In the ensuing brouhaha, the White House clarified that its policy had “not changed.”

Which raises an even more important question: what is the US policy on annexation? What would it do if Israel unilaterally annexed any part of Judea and Samaria?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been asked this question repeatedly over the last number of weeks – twice in Senate hearings immediately after Netanyahu’s pre-election comments, and once in a meeting two weeks ago with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that was leaked to the press. And in each of those cases his answer was the same: everyone will see what the US vision is when the “Deal of the Century” is rolled out. To the Presidents Conference he articulated the hope that any decision toward annexation of territory would wait for the roll out of the plan.

“We really don’t have a view until we understand how much, on what terms, why does it make sense, why is it good for Israel, why is it good for the region, why does it not create more problems than it solves,” Friedman said. “These are all things that we’d want to understand, and I don’t want to prejudge.”

In short, the US has not articulated any policy regarding annexation – neither pro nor con – and that is actually the only new element here, because in contrast to previous administrations that indicated that unilateral annexation is unacceptable under any circumstances, this administration is not saying publicly that this is something that it is completely unacceptable.

At the same time, it is also not saying that unilateral annexation would be something that Washington accepts – and that is also not something Friedman said in his interview.

Moreover, Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, pointed out that by saying that Israel has the right to retain some of the territories taken in the Six Day War, Friedman was not breaking with traditional US policy, which was that Israel would withdraw from territories, but not all the territories, taken during the war.

Gold cited a number of instances which indicated that this was the US policy. For instance, this was the crux of the debate between Washington and Moscow during the drawing up of UN Security Council Resolution 242 following the war, with the US stubbornly insisting that the resolution call for a “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” not “all the territories” or even “the territories.” The language accepted implied that Israel would retain some territories so that it has “defensible borders,” another term that became a key part of US Middle East policy.

Twenty-three years later, US president George H.W. Bush opened up the Madrid Conference speaking of the need for territorial compromise, and not a full withdrawal from all the territories.

And his son, George W. Bush, wrote in his famous letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, 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.”

For Friedman to say that Israel will retain an unspecified amount of territory is, therefore, not a fundamental break from US policy. What is worth looking into, on the other hand, is how and why over the years the idea that Israel will have to withdraw from all the territories acquired during the Six Day War has become so axiomatic, when that was not the intention of many US administrations, going back to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967.



(Tom Gross adds: The piece below was published in Haaretz before it was revealed that Friedman had never talked about unilateral annexation, as the New York Times claimed he had. Nevertheless it is worth reading, because Anshel Pfeffer makes some interesting points about how Prime Minister Netanyahu is in bind with Israel’s right wing as he refuses to give in to the right-wing’s demands.)


With Annexation Comment, Friedman Just Made Netanyahu’s Life More Difficult
For years, the prime minister has cited U.S. pressure to stymie settlement-building in the West Bank. The American ambassador just took away that excuse
By Anshel Pfeffer
June 10, 2019

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman is no fool. You don’t have to understand much about business to realize that keeping Donald Trump afloat for over two decades through bankruptcy after bankruptcy, as Friedman did, was an act of financial and legal wizardry.

Friedman is also a man who has never tried very hard to hide his political views on Israel. His characterization, in a column he wrote for far-right outlet Arutz Sheva in 2016, of the pro-Israel organization J Street as being “far worse than Kapos ... smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas” is just one blatant example. (Note that this was a piece he himself wrote, one in which he could reflect on what he was saying before hitting “Send.”)

So, if anything, Friedman was on his best behavior – for him at least – when he was expertly interviewed last week by David Halbfinger in The New York Times. He was speaking not as a private citizen but as the U.S. ambassador, sitting in his official residence (now moved to Jerusalem). And from his point of view, he was making a concession. Friedman fervently believes Israel has a right to all of the West Bank, but in the interview he was prepared to accept that “Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” This was Friedman at his most moderate.

There is a tendency among journalists and diplomats to see Friedman as Benjamin Netanyahu’s ideological partner. The truth is that while they are extremely well coordinated – probably on an unprecedented level for ambassador and leader of a foreign country in which the ambassador is stationed – Friedman is clearly to the right of Netanyahu. And while there is significant overlap, he adheres to a different ideology.

Friedman is a long-standing supporter of the religious settler movement and has even been a fundraiser for some of the most hard-core settlements in the West Bank. As far as he is concerned, the Jewish people has every right to every inch of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and relinquishing that land is both forbidden by the Torah and an existential threat to the Jewish state.

This makes him a member of an extremely vocal but relatively small community that probably numbers no more than 10 percent of American Jewry. It isn’t a large proportion of Israeli society either. The party that best represents his views, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, received less than four percent of the total vote in the April 9 Knesset election.

The bizarre sequence of events that made Trump president and his bankruptcy lawyer U.S. ambassador to Israel is, from Friedman’s perspective, divine intervention: A window of opportunity opening from the heavens to perpetuate Israel’s hold over Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, is a secular Jewish nationalist and pragmatist. He doesn’t believe in God; only in himself. And, like Friedman, he is adamantly opposed to granting the Palestinians sovereignty in the West Bank.

But he doesn’t seek to extend Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory either. He has no desire to rule directly over the Palestinians and would prefer to see them accepting limited autonomy over disjointed enclaves of Gaza and parts of the West Bank instead. He knows they are not about to accept that, so he is in no hurry to annex any territory beyond what Israel’s Labor government already annexed in and around Jerusalem in 1967.

For now, he is content to preserve Israel’s rule of Area C – the 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli civil and security control. Sovereignty can wait. If necessary, for another generation.

It’s a matter of priorities. While the settler movement has been clamoring for sovereignty for decades, Netanyahu has had other priorities – mainly countering Iran on multiple battlefields. The “creeping annexation,” the building of settlements and normalizing of the occupation, has been happening under every Israeli prime minister over the last 52 years. But Netanyahu would prefer not to provoke another intifada or jeopardize the ties he is building with the Saudis and other Arab regimes by annexing parts of the West Back anytime soon.

Back in April, when Netanyahu dangled annexation as an enticing carrot for right-wing voters, it was nothing more than an election promise. He was vague, contradictory and didn’t back it up with any form of policy planning. When he actually sat down for government coalition talks and the hard-right leaders made a list of demands for the first stage of annexations, he waved them away.

“We’ve talked to Trump’s people. We know that Netanyahu could do so much more,” said one frustrated right-winger. “He doesn’t want to, and he’s been making excuses that we have to wait for the Trump plan.”

Throughout his entire political career, Netanyahu’s overriding strategy has been to try to take the Palestinian issue off the international agenda. That meant both stymieing the Palestinians’ national aspirations but also reining in the settlers somewhat.

Over the years, international pressure on Israel has decreased as a result of fatigue from lack of progress; different politicians coming to power; and the gradual shift of the global center of gravity away from the West and toward Asian powers who are interested in commerce, not human rights. A rush for annexation, resulting in an outbreak of violence, could refocus international attention. Why risk it?

The easiest way for Netanyahu to counter the settlers’ demands while keeping them in his coalition was to complain about pressure from the Americans. That was his answer every time he was asked why Israel wasn’t building more settlements or evicting more Palestinians.

Friedman has taken away Netanyahu’s excuse.

It is certainly no coincidence that Netanyahu – usually so quick to praise the slightest gesture coming from the Trump administration – has yet to say a word publicly about the interview.

Friedman has done Netanyahu no favors. In less than 100 days – assuming the right wing/religious bloc wins another majority in 2019’s second election, which is almost a certainty – Netanyahu will be more vulnerable than ever.

The far right is furious at him for not appointing Bezalel Smotrich as justice minister, and for going behind their backs to Labor leader Avi Gabbay two weeks ago in an attempt to cement a last-minute coalition.

Netanyahu, with his pre-trial indictment hearings just around the corner, will have no more excuses when they demand annexation. By then, the Trump peace plan – if it ever existed in reality – will almost certainly be dead and buried after the farcical “economic workshop” in Bahrain and with Trump entering his own election season and quite possible impeachment.

Friedman has denied Netanyahu his main strategy for holding back the far right, and made his life much more difficult on the day after the September 17 election.


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