Nothing wrong with US policy reflecting the majority in Israel
The annual human rights report released by the US State Department on Friday reflects a new, Trumpian Middle East policy. In a distinct shift from previous years, the State Department refrained from referring to the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Gaza Strip as “occupied territories,” as these areas are designated under UN Resolution 242 of 1967. The decision to favor the neutral terminology “Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza” demonstrates the adoption of US Ambassador David Friedman’s policy views. Tacitly, the new terminology also indicates the administration’s close alignment with the Israeli Right, which has pushed forward legislation to annex West Bank settlements in recent months.
The State Department’s annual report is considered an authoritative source on human rights conditions in almost 200 countries across the world, and offers insight into the administration’s foreign policy priorities.
From 1979 onwards, the annual US government report on human rights used the term “occupied” to refer to the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip; this term also appeared in the first report released for the Trump administration, by then secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
According to State Department officials, the title applied this year – “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza” – serves as a reminder of what has become standard practice in the administration. Indeed, an examination of the actions and policy views by Ambassador Friedman, a member of Trump’s designated peace team, reveals conscious attempts to neutralize Israel’s ongoing occupation, and even endorse it.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in September 2017, the US ambassador to Israel invoked the Left’s opposition to what he termed the “alleged occupation.” In the same month, Friedman told Israel’s Walla News that Israel is “only occupying 2% of the West Bank.” Area C, which Israel controls in its entirety, accounts for approximately 61% of the West Bank. In December, Friedman asked the State Department to stop referring to the occupied territories as “occupied.” While the State Department reportedly rejected Friedman’s initial proposal, the publication of this report suggests that the issue was revisited.
To those familiar with his background, Ambassador Friedman’s public statements came as no surprise. Friedman, considered the architect of the US embassy move, is viewed as the most pro-Israel envoy in US diplomatic history. He holds vastly different views on Israel’s settlement policy than his predecessor, Daniel Shapiro. In May 2016, a year before he was appointed ambassador, Friedman even 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.
Prior to his arrival in Israel, while president of the American Friends of Bet El Institutions, Friedman was responsible for funding several projects in Beit El. Among the beneficiaries of the approximately $2 million in donations raised each year in the US is the Bet El Yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Zalman Melamed.
Melamed, a founder of the far-right political party Tkuma, was among a group of rabbis who urged Israeli soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate the Gush Katif settlements in 2005.
Previous reports on the American Friends of Bet El Institution’s donors and key attendees of gala dinner reveal deep ties between the current administration and Bet El. In 2013, the organization received a donation worth $20,000 from Jared Kushner’s family. President Donald Trump also made a $10,000 donation to Beit El in Friedman’s honor in 2016. John Bolton, the recently-appointed National Security Advisor, was the keynote speaker for the organization’s most recent annual gala dinner in December.
The official adoption of Friedman’s preferred phraseology by the State Department is bound to further embolden Israel’s Right and lend credit to legal attempts to annex the West Bank. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman an inhabitant of Nokdim, wrote on Twitter that the recent report constituted proof “of the lie of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Liberman’s comments come in the wake of months of legal attempts to create a de facto annexation of the West Bank.
On February 12, the Knesset passed legislation to apply Israeli law to academic institutions in the West Bank, such as Ariel University. In the same month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that he had been talking to the Americans about applying Israeli law to all West Bank settlements.
The report’s usage of findings by the Israeli research institute Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) to discuss Palestinian incitement indicates a more implicit acceptance of views put forward by settlement proponents