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State Department says Friedman settlements comments do not reflect US policy

David Friedman (c), nouvel ambassadeur américain en Israël, et le rabbin Shmuel Rabinovitch (g) devant le mur des Lamentations à Jérusalem, le 15 mai 2017
MENAHEM KAHANA (AFP)
Palestinians say Friedman is 'very bad news' for US attempts to forge peace in the Middle East

The US State Department walked back comments about Jewish settlements in the West Bank made by President Donald Trump's envoy to Israel on Thursday, saying they do not represent government policy.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said in an interview broadcast earlier on Thursday that Israel's expansion into the West Bank was always going to happen after it took control of the formerly Jordanian territory in the Six Day War, because Israel is entitled to create borders that are "secure".

Israel is "only occupying two percent of the West Bank," he added, in comments that angered the Palestinians.

Friedman's views "should not be read as a way to prejudge the outcome of any negotiations" and "should not be read as a shift in US policy," State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said in a press briefing later on Thursday, according to the Jerusalem Post.

"I just want to be clear that our policy has not changed​," Nauert emphasized. ​"I want to be crystal clear​."​

According to the Post, she then listed the US' "very effective leaders and representatives," mentioning by name Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt.

In a preview of an interview with the Walla news network released on Thursday morning, Friedman said "there was always supposed to be some notion of expansion into the West Bank, but not necessarily expansion into the entire West Bank."

"And I think that's exactly what...Israel has done. I mean, they're only occupying two percent of the West Bank," Friedman said.

"I think that was always the expectation when [UN] Resolution 242 was adopted in 1967... The idea was that Israel would be entitled to secure borders," he says, referring to a resolution adopted in the aftermath of Israel's Six Day War with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon."

ABBAS MOMANI (AFP/File)

"The existing borders, the 1967 borders, were viewed by everybody as not secure, so Israel would retain a meaningful portion of the West Bank, and it would return that which it didn't need for peace and security," according to Friedman.

Friedman, who has been vocally supportive of Israeli settlement projects in the past, re-affirmed his position that "the settlements are part of Israel."

"There is important nationalistic, historical [and] religious significance to those settlements, and I think the settlers view themselves as Israelis and Israel views the settlers as Israelis," he said.

Asked whether Israeli settlements would have to be evacuated as part of a future peace agreement with the Palestinians, Friedman responded only, "wait and see."

Reports of the interview excerpts earned a swift and stinging rebuke from the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Dr. Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to PA President Abbas, said that the "alleged ambassador" Friedman "has absolute ignorance of facts, of law, of the position of the United States."

"He talks about Israel occupying only two per cent of the West Bank when in fact they are occupying 100% of the West Bank," he said, adding that the comments were "very bad news for the future of any American attempt to make peace in the Middle East."

MENAHEM KAHANA (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on Wednesday, at a controversial ceremony marking fifty years since Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza, vowed that "there will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel."

He added that "we will uproot neither Jews nor Arabs," an indication of his opposition to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman's desire for "population swaps" between Arab citizens of Israel and Jews living in settlements in a future peace deal.

Friedman speculated that details of a proposed peace agreement being brokered by the administration of US President Donald Trump could come "within months" but added that "we're not holding ourselves to any hard deadline."

"We'll try to get it done right, not done fast," he said.

Since coming to power Trump has assigned his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and his former lawyer Jason Greenblatt to talk to both Israelis and Palestinians and plot a path to reviving on-and-off peace negotiations.

The last round of negotiations were dropped in 2014 when ex-Secretary of State John Kerry's relentless shuttle diplomacy failed to bear fruit.

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