Arutz Sheva sat down for a talk with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman during the Sukkot holiday.
In a wide-ranging interview, Friedman discussed topics including the US peace plan, Iran, and Israel's achievements in the 1967 Six-Day War.
What did it feel like to take part in this morning’s Birkat Kohanim?
“As somebody who’s been a Kohen my whole life, I’ve obviously done Birkat Kohanim for many, many years, since I’m a little kid, 50 years or more. But there’s nothing like doing it here. There’s 100,000 people, and thousands of Kohanim. And we’re here at the foot of the holiest place in Judaism. So to do it here on Chag Sukkot with 100,000 people with this environment, there’s nothing like it. This is the fifth time that I’ve done it. Each time it gets more and more exciting.”
How long have you been in Jerusalem with the Embassy?
“It was May 14th 2018 that we opened, so it has been about a year and a half. Since the opening, we have done a lot of renovation, construction for the embassy. My office has changed… it has gotten much bigger, it is very beautiful. I have a home on Rehov Agron, which is the ambassador’s official residence. We’ve added staff and services, and we’re transferring as fast as we can to Jerusalem.”
What about the dire predictions prior to the embassy move?
“To put it mildly, those predictions were overstated, and to be more accurate, there was virtually no adverse reaction. I think people really understand that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
Claiming that Tel Aviv is Israel’s capital “was a fiction that Israel’s enemies tried they could get away with as long as they can. I don’t think even they expected this fantasy to last as long as it did, especially after the Embassy Act passed in 1995.”
“Notwithstanding all the dire predictions, the world accepted it as they would accept anything which rings true.”
Was this a move that promoted peace?
“I think it does promote peace, because any policy which is rooted in truth has the potential of being enduring and accepted. If you pursue a policy – and this is where we broke with many of our predecessors – which is rooted in fiction and fantasy, it will crash on the rocks of reality, as the Prime Minister likes to say.”
What is the connection between the White House’s Middle East peace plan and the Israeli elections? Why did the US hold off on publishing the plan?
“The connection is that we want a response from the government. To put something out and to have it then become a subject of discussion during a campaign season…during election periods people are not necessarily thinking about the long term. People are thinking about positioning themselves to get votes in the short term. It is not the right environment to discuss something this important which has such long-term ramifications.”
“We want a government, we desperately want a government – we want a government as much as Israelis do. Israel is disserved by having this transitionary [sic] period for so long. When the government is formed, no matter who forms the government, we’ll put out the plan and we’ll do so in a way that we can immediately guide the government’s response to the plan.”
“We believe that, regardless of the ultimate make-up of the Israeli government, we’ve proposed something that will resonate with the overwhelming majority of Israeli citizens and will be supported by the Israeli government.”
Why the secrecy surrounding the peace plan?
“We want it to stand on its merits. We want it to be looked at in its totality, we don’t want it to be dissected piecemeal where you mention one aspect or another and that becomes the topic of discussion for people who don’t have the benefit of the entire approach.”
“I don’t think anyone wants to see a third election. I think a government will form, I think it will form soon, and then we’re going to get right to work on this.”
What can you tell us about the future of the settlements in Judea and Samaria under the plan?
“That is a very important part of the plan. I don’t want to get too into it, but I’ll tell you something which I’ve said on numerous occasions: Having seen the experience of the evacuation of Gaza, I don’t believe that there is a realistic plan that can be implemented that will require anyone, Jew or Arab, to be forced to leave their home. That would be recipe for disaster It almost caused a civil war on much, much less aggressive circumstances in Gaza, compared to Judea and Samaria. So we are not of the view that any forced evacuations are achievable. And I say that for both Jewish and Arab perspectives."
And how about construction? Is there still discussion and coordination over the years or are we only waiting for this deal?
We have discussion and coordination, but the facts speak for themselves. We have not been critical of settlements in any absolute sense. We've expressed our views in the past and have been consistent in those views. But the surest way to resolve all these issues is to come up with a structure that the state of Israel can agree to, where everybody knows, and we don't have these quarterly or monthly issues about settlements.
No. It's frankly an inhumane process - speaking about Jews or Arabs. It failed in 2006, produced an extreme adverse reaction among Israelis. I think it's a failed policy, and not something that we would advance.
Regarding Iran, is US policy changing, becoming more lenient?
Not at all. I think this notion came about from the idea that the president might meet with Rouhani. The president has said that he likes meeting with people, and he may one day meet with Rouhani the same way that he met with Kim Jong Un - that, to me is the wrong question. The real question is, will the US offer Iran any sanction relief as part of that meeting? I think the answer is no.
Our policy of maximum pressure on Iran is continuing, and we're working with Israel very closely to combat all the malign activities coming out or Iran. So if anything, I think our position's gotten stronger, not weaker.
How do you see the 'friendship' between Trump and Netanyahu? Is there more to it than plain 'support for Israel?'
I think they have an extraordinary friendship. I think Trump admires the prime minister and they get along on a personal level. They're very close. When I speak with him ,the president asks me all the time how the prime minister is doing, and they speak regularly. Having said that, our support for the state of Israel is for the state of Israel, as much as we admire and respect the prime minister, and we will maintain that relationship with Israel irrespective of who the Israeli people choose as their leader.
What are your feelings and what is your vision in your role as ambassador to Israel?
Israel had not made much progress dealing with the essential issues that emanated from 1967 - Jerusalem, the Golan, and Judea and Samaria were still up in the air. I think we've made enormous progress on Jerusalem - if not 100% of the way home, we're 95% of the way home. The Golan was 100% of the way there in terms of the president's recognition, and regarding the most complex issue of Judea and Samaria and the relationship with the Palestinians - given the progress we've made, we'd like to keep working on that. If we can articulate a vision, even if not accepted immediately, that works for the state of Israel and the region, that the Palestinians can accept and that brings peace to the region, that would make me very happy.
You mentioned 1967 as a positive date, while others call it a date of 'controversy' and 'occupation.'
1967 was an extraordinary date for Israel and the world. It finally put Israel in a place where it was able to defend itself and not be exposed to the precarious boundaries that had plagued it since 1948.
Will you stay in Israel after the end of your term? You seem to feel quite at home in Israel.
Israel is a beautiful and amazing country, the Jewish state. I try to stay focused on the job, you'll have to wait until I'm done to ask me that question.