Ambassador David Friedman:
'Our position is that Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria will never be evacuated'

US Ambassador at Israel Hayom conference: More countries in the Arab League will normalize and make peace with Israel.

Arutz Sheva Staff ,

Boaz Bismuth and David Friedman
Boaz Bismuth and David Friedman
Israel Hayom

"The International Shiloh Forum, Kohelet Forum and Israel Hayom Conference" began on Wednesday with a speech by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in which he praised the agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

This was followed by an interview given by US Ambassador David Friedman to Israel Hayom Editor-in-Chief Boaz Bismuth.

Mr. Ambassador, America will hold an election in less than a month, against the backdrop of a changed Middle East. Iran is under immense pressure and deterred due to the killing of [Quds Force commander] Qassim Soleimani, Israel's status is significantly improved, and its ties with the Arab world are stronger than ever. Russia is in check in Syria. Can you say that the peace deals in the Middle East between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain are the chief foreign policy accomplishment of the Trump administration?

"Well, thank you, Boaz. It is great to be with you. I think the peace agreements with UAE and Bahrain are certainly among the greatest foreign policy achievements of the Trump administration, but I think you need to look at all of it holistically, I think it began with the recognition of Jerusalem, as Israel's capital, the moving of the embassy, recognizing the Golan Heights as being part of Israeli sovereign territory, the recognition that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria are not illegal. All those were building blocks along the way to a policy which I think demonstrated to the entire region that one can be pro-Israel without doing damage or God forbid causing conflict or war within the Middle East. And I think it created a platform for countries like the UAE and Bahrain and all the others to come in. So certainly the peace agreements, which happens once in a generation if at all, certainly, the peace agreement is a crowning achievement of President Trump's first term. But I think we have to look at it not in isolation but as part of an overall strategy where the Trump administration has stood with and empowered its allies and taken a much harsher view of its enemies, and I think that is why we are where we are today."

You mentioned the transfer of the embassy, which was a huge event. I remember being there, I was one of the lucky guests of course. And for you personally, having your desk transferred from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, what an event. People at the time warned us that it would cause the Middle East to go ablaze, were you at the time, the administration, confident enough to know that this would not be the case?

"We were confident that this would not set the Middle East on fire. At the same time, we prepared for the worst. We were gauging the reaction or potential reaction all throughout the region, from as far West as Morocco to as far east as Pakistan. We were checking in with our embassies, we were collecting our intelligence, so we were preparing for the worst case but the more we prepared the more we confident that not only would this not set the world on fire, but actually it was a very positive step forward because it showed that America was willing to keep its promises and stand with its allies. And we have many allies in the region, and I think that other allies recognized that America was a good friend that could be trusted. It went according to plan and I think it set the stage for many further successes."

Who is next to join the bandwagon?

"I don't want to get ahead of any other country, they all have their own timeframes, sensitivities. I think just looking at the reactions to the peace agreements with Bahrain and UAE you can tell that there are others that endorse what we have done, they support the move and the body language is very promising. Beyond the body language, we have had lots of conversations with other nations. There will be more countries that are in the Arab League that will normalize and make peace with Israel, I have no doubt it is a certainty. How many, in what order, I think everyone will have to wait and see."

Without revealing names of countries, might we see surprises?

"I think people that are watching this closely shouldn't be surprised at any breakthrough because they are all potentially out there. Some are more likely than others and you know there's been lots of people trying to predict but I do believe that with obvious exceptions like Hezbollah-led Lebanon or Assad-led Syria or Khamenei-led Iran, almost everything else is potential. And I'll tell you, I think over time, as even the greatest of Israel's enemies see the trends and which way the wind is blowing, they will all be confronted with a pretty tough choice about whether they want to be on the wrong side of history or whether they want to join the circle of peace. It is a much better pathway for the people of the region. And may take a little bit of time, for some of the more challenging countries, but it is certainly I believe the trend and the way for the future."

What was the trigger, what made this big difference that things are no longer discrete with the UAE?

"I think there are a couple of things. First is the leadership of both the UAE and Bahrain on the one hand and the prime minister on the other hand. They saw this as being in the best interests of their people. Israel as you know has had covert relations with lots of different countries, or certainly, they have been reported with lots of different countries. There is only so far you can get with such a relationship, you can't have tourism, you can't have trade, you can't have flights, you can't have real commercial engagements, and you can't really build a meaningful peace because peace without popular support will only get you so far. So I think the real credit goes to the leadership to the crown prince, to the king, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and of course more than anyone it goes to President Trump, because he established a level of trust that has been so lacking for eight years or even longer. There is an expression that says that for someone to jump into a pool they have to be confident that there is water. And what president trump did, is gave everybody the assurances that there is water in the pool, that once they jumped in that there would be a favorable reception that the US would stand with them, would be with them, would support them. And I think all of that put together created the assurances. The people to people engagement is absolutely critical for there to be a warm peace and what we are seeing now in just small things, you know, there is already kosher food in Abu Dhabi, the people really want to make each other welcome. And to me that's the most exciting thing of all because from there, the sky is really the limit."

You did not mention the F-35 issue. So this had nothing to do with the peace deal?

"Well, no. Look, you can read the treaty that was signed by the parties. It does not mention anything about weaponry. We are going to have to address requests from the UAE for F-35 and other weaponry, we would address those issues with or without a peace agreement. They have made that request of the US government and the US will have to process that request. They will do so the same way they have done it in the past, they will engage commentary from Israel, they'll work with their partners in Israel and other partners in the region to find a way to achieve two things. Number 1, to help make the emirates as strong as possible, because frankly, it is tremendously helpful both to America and to Israel to have a strong ally on the Strait of Hormuz, that's a win for everybody. At the same time, to do it in a way that does not jeopardize Israel's qualitative military edge, which is a law of the US that we must adhere to. All of that is going to get worked out. It would get worked out either way and it's going to get worked out by professionals, by people who are experts in these issues, that would not include me, that would not include most people in the political echelons, it's handled by real professional experts. They have done this many many times before, they sit together without publicity, and they work it out. And they get it right. I believe that is what will happen here as well. I really do think it is a win-win. Israel will keep its military edge and Israel and the US will have an ally on the Strait of Hormuz that is as strong as possible."

Regarding the sovereignty bid, the Israeli Right is a bit confused. Israel was on the verge of extending sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and maybe even to other areas, but then a new tone came out of Washington putting this on hold. Can we once and for all understand what the current status of the sovereignty bid is and whether this will actually take place?

"Sure. As you know, in January we published a Trump Vision for Peace. And in contrast to all those who went before us, we actually provided the geographic dimensions of that vision, along with a narrative that made it very clear that it is the position of the US that Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria will never be evacuated. That we do not think it is in Israel's interests or in America's interests to ever ask any community there to disband or evacuate. So we made that very clear in January and even before that as you know Secretary Pompeo made it very clear that Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria don't violate international law. So we begin with that. Now, as a step forward we were all working toward what we thought was a productive next step in the peace plan, which was to recognize Israeli sovereignty over at least some of the communities that were on the map, maybe all, certainly some. And we are moving along that path, we ran into some headwinds, one was the pandemic which would be a huge limitation on how we can engage diplomatically. The second was a unity government in which at least two of the three highest-ranking members in the government, the defense, and foreign minister, took a very different, very negative view, of the sovereignty issue, at least in isolation, and as were struggling with those issues and I think you are aware of the efforts we put in, to try to create some consensus position, we saw an opportunity that we did not envision as we were moving forward. An opportunity for Israel to make peace with the UAE and we also saw additional countries were likely to follow. And I think we all kind of took a step back, and I think you have to credit the Trump administration. Most governments like aircraft carriers; they are not nimble, they are not able to turn, to steer. We looked at the situation and said, you know what, today there is an Israeli flag flying over Hebron, Shiloh, Maaleh Edumin, they are flying there today, and under our plan they are going to be flying there forever, so that is not an immediate concern. What is an immediate opportunity is the ability to make peace with a major Arab country, an important one. And so, I think we all took a step back and said, this is a higher priority, and we prioritized the peace initiative over the sovereignty initiative. But I want to make it clear, it was a prioritization, we didn't say let's do this and shelve that, we said let's put peace first. And when we created a joint statement between Israel, US and the UAE we used the word suspend the sovereignty bid, not cancel or abandon. Suspend by definition temporary. The US states believe in the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria being there permanently. We believe that in the long run, it is in America and Israel's interests to extend its sovereignty over these communities, we also believe it is Israel's highest and most important priority as is ours to extend the circle of peace for as far and as long as it will go and to make that our first priority. It is not to the exclusion of sovereignty, but it is a priority. When will sovereignty occur? I wish I had an answer for your; we are going to spend all of our efforts in the near future on diplomatic efforts, to push the diplomatic agenda as far as it will take us, and make Israel as safe, secure, and prosperous among all the nations in the region, create as much peace as possible, reduce the threat level as much as possible, and then when we feel that we have exhausted those efforts, of course, to try to formalize, help Israel at least, formalize its boundaries in a way that includes its sovereignty over the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria."

So in the future, we will have both peace and sovereignty?

"Yes. I agree with that."

Why isn't Saudi Arabia joining this?

"If you are able to get an interview with them I am sure you will ask them. I don't want to speak for Saudi Arabia. I can tell you though that Saudi Arabia has been enormously helpful to this process in an obvious way. It takes a little bit over three hours now to fly from Ben Gurion Airport to Abu Dhabi or Manama. Without Saudi Arabia, that flight would take about seven hours. Israel for the first time in its history has commercial overflight rights to these countries over Saudi Arabia, I would not minimize that, that is a very significant signal so my view is that, like every other country let's respect the Saudis to go through this process at their own pace, to deal with this issue as they see fit but we are all pretty happy right now with the help we have gotten from the Saudis and I hope that it grows and expands."

We spoke about so many achievements and we are only talking about the first term. Does it all depend on Trump winning a second term? Will a Biden administration put a stop to all these beautiful things?

"I am not equipped to speak for the Biden administration. I think that with regards to the Trump administration. If we are honored enough to continue to serve the American people for a second term, the opportunities here are enormous. What is Iran's strategy? It's to pray five times a day that Trump loses. They know that if Trump wins they have no exit strategy for the pressure we put on them, short of ending their malign activity. What's the Palestinian strategy? Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said that 'we have to pray that Donald Trump loses.' That's their strategy because they know that the Trump administration will hold the Palestinians accountable to end incitement, to end terrorism, to stop glorifying in town squares terrorists who were responsible for mass atrocities to create an infrastructure of transparency and religious freedom we care about that, we are the only administration that's ever held the Palestinians accountable to join the civilized world. What's the Palestinian strategy? We hope he loses. So if we are able to have another four years, I think that those countries whose only strategy is to hope we are gone, I think they will have no choice but to engage in a productive way and hopefully, we can really change the Middle East for a hundred years and end all the dangerous and maligned and human activity that has brought so much despair to so many people in this region. I don't want to speak for what Biden would do but I can tell you that the way to continue on the path for us to have another four years."

Can you reveal anything about his plans concerning Iran, in case President Trump has a second term?

"The president has expressed some optimism that in his second term he might be able to make a deal with Iran, but let's just be clear what that means. We have been very clear, the secretary of state has been very clear about what Iran has to do to sit at the table with the US. There is only one way to get them to that point. It's through strength. Through continued pressure and it's through a continued serious and non-bending approach to their malign activity. I think the president is optimistic that that path will work. He has also expressed a good deal of pessimism that if he is no longer the president that at least what has been expressed as the alternative view, going back to the JCPOA, that might rear its ugly head. If it does, I would be very concerned that all of the hard work that we have put into changing the perspectives within Iran, that it might go to waste. Let's hope it doesn't happen. Our policy is best for America, it is best for the world, it is best for Israel, it is best for the region and whoever is sitting in the White House, let's hope that policy continues."

Allow me to be very Israeli and as a personal question. I think that all the people of the region must be very grateful to you Mr. Ambassador for your contribution to peace in the region. If Trump wins, will you stay here with us?

"Well, you make it sound as if it is my choice. If the president. If the president wants me to stay on, I will serve my country and my president. It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve in this role working with President Trump, with Jared and Avi and Jason, before him, with the national security adviser, with Secretary Pompeo with vice president pence. This has been a labor of love. This has been one of the great dream teams that have ever been built with regards to representing America in this region, and I sure would like to keep that going."