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Brussels Hub Call on the Middle East Peace Plan with AMB Friedman

usa flagBRUSSELS, January 31, 2020 - Please see below the transcript for the Brussels Hub’s telephonic press briefing with David Friedman, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, with Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State and Avi Berkowitz, Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations on the line as well. Over 136 participating journalists dialed in from around the world from Belgium, Canada, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Latvia, Lebanon, Nepal, Netherlands, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sweden, Syria, UAE, UK, and the United States .

Moderator:  Thank you.  Greetings to everyone from the U.S.-European Media Hub in Brussels.  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from around the world and thank all of you for joining this discussion. 

Today we are very pleased to be joined by the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, as well as Brian Hook, Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State, and Mr. Avi Berkowitz, Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Friedman, and then we will turn to your questions.  We will do our best to get to as many questions as possible in the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.  I would also like to remind our speakers to identify themselves each time they respond to a question seeing as there are three of you.

With that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Friedman.

Ambassador Friedman:  Thanks very much.  Sorry, it’s been – my voice is a little – a little hoarse from the last couple of days.  So thank you for joining.  As the President said yesterday, Israel has taken a giant step forward towards peace.  For the first time in 52 years, really since the beginning of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians over the territory of the West Bank, for the first time in 52 years the state of Israel has committed to the territorial dimensions and the other conditions upon which it’s willing to live side by side with a Palestinian state.

If you go back through history to all the other diplomatic efforts, whether the discussions at Camp David or Oslo or Wye River, lots and lots and lots of pages, a lot of discussion, but I would defy anybody to look at those documents and actually determine what Israel was giving up and what the territorial dimensions would be or what the security protocol would be or how this new state might be financed or the basic laws that might govern its existence.

And so we have – we’ve assembled a lengthy document that I assume you’ve all seen, which I think perhaps the most important page is the page that has the map which shows precisely the territory that Israel is going to compromise for the sake of peace.

Palestinians – it’s not lost upon us that the Palestinians are not parties to the agreement.  It’s not lost upon us that they’ve already said no.  I think President Abbas said no “a thousand times,” if I’m correct in his – in his words.  But I think the reaction from the region generally has been extraordinarily constructive, and we intend to make the case to the Palestinian people that this is in their best interest and in the best interests of the region.  And I’m sure during the course of your questions we’ll flesh that out in greater detail.

So with that, I’m happy to – should we open up the lines for questions?

Moderator:  Sure.  Our first question goes to Barak Ravid with Channel 13 News.

Question:  [Inaudible] for doing this briefing.  My question is to you, Ambassador, and maybe also to Avi Berkowitz.  Prime Minister Netanyahu announced yesterday that he’s going to bring to the next cabinet meeting a resolution to annex the Jordan Valley and all the settlements in the West Bank.  Is this something that the U.S. supports?  Because the President in his speech at the ceremony yesterday spoke about some sort of a committee that is supposed to sit down together, the U.S. and Israel, and decide how to exactly do this annexation.  Is this something that the U.S. supports that the next cabinet meeting in Israel will deal with annexation?

Ambassador Friedman:  Well, let me tell you what the position of the United States Government is, and I’ll let – I’ll let the Israeli Government speak to how it intends to move forward.  The agreement that we have with the prime minister is that in exchange for Israel agreeing to freeze the territory that’s allocated to a Palestinian state under the vision, in exchange for accepting our plan and moving forward, and I’m just going to quote the words of the President:  “We will form a joint committee with Israel to convert the conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering so that a recognition can be immediately achieved.”

So our position is that there’ll be a committee.  We will – that committee will work with all due – with all due deliberation to get to the right spot, but it is a process that does require some effort, some understanding as some calibration.  We need to see the dimensions and make sure that it’s not inconsistent with the map.  So I think that – if I could say, I think everybody is right.  I mean, there is – there is a understanding that there will be – and by the way, Barak, I – the word “annexation” is just the wrong word.  I’ve never used that word.  I just used it just now just to – I’ll – that’s the last time I’ll say it.  It’s the wrong word.  It’s not the word that would apply to this; it’s the application of Israeli law.

But in any event, the Israeli – the Israeli Government will do what it’s going to do, but then the committee will form.  We’ll designate shortly the members of the committee from our side.  We hope the Israeli Government will do the same.  We’ll be presented with the – with the plan and the proposal, and we’ll consider it as part of the – as part of the agreement, and then we’ll make a decision.  And so I’m not going to go beyond that right now, and I’m not going to speculate how long that will take.  It could be – the President did use the word “immediately.”  We are cognizant that this is something that we’ll get to work on right away, and we’ll try to get to the answer quickly.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.

Our next question goes to Guido Lanfranchi with Diplomat Magazine in the Netherlands.

Question:  Many thanks for the briefing.  So in yesterday’s press conference, the President said that he is ready to do a lot for the Palestinians if they accept the plan.  However, up until now there has been quite an imbalance in what the U.S. and the current administration has done for the Israelis and for the Palestinians.  So in this context, how can the Palestinians believe that the U.S. will follow through on the commitments and which guarantees can they have?  Thanks a lot.

Ambassador Friedman:  Sure.  Well, in the first instance the – I would just say that the Palestinians will have the opportunity to sit down with Israel and try to identify the issues that they’d like to work with and maybe improve.  I’m not going to speculate how those discussions would – would turn out.  But the Palestinians, I can assure you, will do far better with – at the negotiating table than they will with days or rage, and I just offer that advice to them if they’re listening.

The President has done two things.  Number one, he has obtained for the Palestinians what I would consider to be a hard offer – not diplomatic speak but a real, documented offer to live in a Palestinian – to form a Palestinian state with defined borders.  No other president has ever – has done that for the Palestinians.  So I would start with that.

I would also make the point that the President has obtained the agreement from the Israelis to keep this offer open for four years.  Now, in the world in which we live, almost no offers remain open for a period that long, and it gives the Palestinians the opportunities that they need to study this and to ideally rise to the occasion, to sit at the table and try to make peace.

I don’t think any other president has done more.  To the extent that money is required, I think we’ll be receptive to looking at helping participate in investments to the extent the Palestinians are there to make peace.  We’ve arranged a robust package of grants, loans, and investments from the – from the Gulf and from other countries.  Obviously, nobody is going to invest in – prematurely, no one’s going to invest before there is a rule of law, before contracts are subject to being enforced.

And what I would also point to, and I think this is important because it goes right to the interests of the Palestinian people:  This is the first time that a president has actually defined some of the basic internal requirements for Palestinian statehood – rule of law, respect for human rights, freedom of religion, a free press.  In the past, I think the administrations have looked at a Palestinian state and said, look, you guys figure out what’s good for you, and the Palestinians have said, look, why do we have to be democratic when other neighbors are less so?  This is a – this President has said, look, we’re not putting our fingerprints on the creation of a state that doesn’t respect human rights, that doesn’t have a free press, that doesn’t have freedom of religion.  And for Palestinians who – the Palestinians, the many, many Palestinians who are disenfranchised by the respective governments in the West Bank and Gaza, they ought to accept that as an extremely positive development.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that – for that response. 

Our next question goes to Peter Morvay with Hetek News Magazine in Hungary.

Question:  Dear Mr. Berkowitz and Ambassador Friedman, thank you for the consultation.  President Trump’s vision for peace states clearly that people of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion.  Today’s status quo is that it is not permitted for Jews and Christians to pray publicly anytime on the Mount.  How will it change in the future?  Will Jews be allowed to pray on sabbath and Christians on Sundays and Muslims on Friday, or will there be certain areas or even buildings created on the Mount for Jewish and Christian prayer beside the Muslim mosque?  Thank you for your answers.

Ambassador Friedman:  Sure, thank you for that question, and I think that several people looked at the plan and found that it was somehow contradictory to the status quo.  So let me start by saying the status quo, in the manner that it is observed today, will continue absent an agreement to the contrary.  So there’s nothing in the – there’s nothing in the plan that would impose any alteration of the status quo that’s not subject to agreement of all the parties.  So don’t expect to see anything different in the near future, or maybe in the future at all.

Having said that, as we – as we point out, we would like the region generally to be more open and free with regard to the exercise of religion.  We make that point clearly that we would expect freedom of religion to be observed in Israel, in a Palestinian state, and elsewhere.  Freedom of religion is one of the hallmark policies of the Trump administration.  And so we would hope that the parties would agree in terms of the ultimate resolution of this conflict to be more open to religious observance everywhere, including on the Temple Mount, but it is only something that will be changed through the agreement.  If there isn’t an agreement, there won’t be any change. 

Thank you.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that. 

Our next question is from Samir Salama, and could you please state your outlet when you ask your question?  Samir Salama, are you on the line?

Question:  Yes.  My question is to the [inaudible] official.  Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said – I am quoting:  “The U.S. President’s proposal envisions a form of apartheid.”  What are your comments?

Moderator:  If I heard you correctly, you asked that this is a form of apartheid.  I think that’s what I heard, Mr. Ambassador.

Ambassador Friedman:  Oh, no, no.  I think it’s the farthest thing from apartheid.  I think what the plan contemplates is that the Palestinians will be able to govern themselves, will be in charge of their own financial destiny, their own economic, religious, cultural destiny.  They will elect their own leaders for their own state, and they will live side by side with Israel, one nation-state of the Jewish people, one nation-state of the Palestinian people, with – in both states – freedom of religion, human rights.  I mean, I – to me, that’s the exact opposite of apartheid.  The United States would never endorse any form of apartheid anywhere in the world.

Thank you.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  Our next question goes to Rafael Sanchez with The Daily Telegraph in Israel.

Question:  Afternoon, Ambassador.  The plan lays out a vision for a Palestinian state, but it’s a Palestinian state where Israeli security forces can still make arrests, where Israel will control who comes in, who comes out, where Israel will control what’s imported.  And so are you at all concerned that the Palestinians may look at this and say, you know what, we don’t really want to live in a state like this, and if we are going to live in a situation where Israel has so much control, we may as well seek to become Israeli citizens and try to turn Israel into a binational state?  Are you confident the Palestinians are not going to go down that road, or do you feel if they do Israel can resist it?  Are you concerned that you’re setting this up to become a civil rights struggle instead of a national struggle?

Ambassador Friedman:  Well, it’s certainly not our intention, and I think there is – I think it’s a little too early to really gauge Palestinian reaction.  This – we’re not – we never thought this would be something that would gain traction in the first week or so of its publication.

Look, security is – it’s a serious matter.  It’s not – it’s really not a political issue.  It’s a matter of life and death.  Israel has no margin of error.  And frankly, the Palestinians have no margin of error.  So you’ve got to get the security right.

Now, we totally reject the notion that Israel’s retention of security is a continuation of the occupation.  The United States has military presence all over the world.  We have presence in Germany, in Japan, in South Korea, Philippines.  I mean, we’re – none of those countries consider themselves occupied by the United States, and we certainly don’t consider ourselves to be occupiers.

We look at security in a different lens, and I would encourage you to look at – look at the basic concept of security here is that the more the Palestinian Security Forces do, the less the Israeli Defense Forces will need to do.  And we’ve identified metrics to help the Palestinians understand the levels to which their security forces need to go in order to have an argument and to push back – or not push back, but to have the position where the Israeli Defense Forces can be more comfortable doing less.

It’s structured essentially as an accordion.  But if this goes well, if this goes the way it should go, and I would expect in a few years that the primary internal security within the Palestinian state will be handled by Palestinians.  That’s certainly the aspiration.

But we need to answer the question:  What if that’s not the case?  And because security is so vital to the region, because this territory between Israel and Jordan cannot – cannot under any circumstances fail and be subject to control by terrorist forces, the Israeli security, overriding security responsibility, is essential.  But aspirationally and directionally, we’re moving in a place where the Palestinian Security Forces ideally will be the face of security within the West Bank. 


Moderator:  Thank you very much.  I think we have time for about two more questions.  We’ll go to Ali Harb with Middle East Eye in the UK. 

Question:  Hello, thank you for doing this.  The plan does mention land swaps for – that land swaps provided by Israel could include both populated and unpopulated area, and it mentions a bunch of villages on the northwestern end of the West Bank that are outside the West Bank, currently today in Israel.  Yesterday, Israeli Knesset member Ayman Odeh framed this as a racist effort to strip hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab citizens who live in northern Israel of their citizenship.  How would you respond to that?

Ambassador Friedman:  It’s just not true.  There’s – the idea – the idea was to more carefully align territorially the populations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.  As we’ve said, we’re trying to create a nation-state for the Jewish people and a nation-state for the Palestinian people.

But no one is being stripped of citizenship.  We don’t – we don’t propose that.  I’m not an expert in Israeli law, but I would assume that it would violate the law as well.  This is a territorial reallocation.  It is not intended, certainly not by us or I don’t believe by Israel – it’s not intended to be a – to affect anybody’s citizenship.  And I would suspect that this process would – if there was interest in it, I would suspect that there would be a lengthy legal discussion as to how to implement it.

But again, this is – this is the President’s vision for peace.  The Palestinians are welcome to engage.  This is an issue that is important, and if we got this one wrong, then they ought to show up at the table and explain why.  It’s certainly not something which is – it will never become a forced divestiture of citizenship by any Israeli citizen. 


Moderator:  Okay.  And our last question will go to – sorry, Mehul Srivastava with the Financial Times.

Question:  [Inaudible] planning on settlements is something that’s quite well known and has been a bit of a controversial issue during a period here in Israel.  But I was wondering if you could actually talk us through a larger issue, which is:  How is it that the team addressed the idea of Jerusalem and reached the conclusion that no Palestinian state should have a right or any claim at all to anything in East Jerusalem, but instead should create a border outside the municipal boundaries behind the security barrier, thereby giving Jerusalem entirely to the country, to the state, of Israel?

Ambassador Friedman:  Well, first of all, I think you made a mistake in your assumption.  The security barrier is inside the municipal boundary.  So the territory – there is territory beyond the – beyond the security barrier that is still municipal Jerusalem.  So we have provided for a capital inside the municipal territory of Jerusalem.  That’s the point.

But to answer your broader question, and Jerusalem has been a – has been a city of conflict for thousands of years, and in the same manner that we look at the Temple Mount and say we ought to preserve the status quo, we look at this in – with the – from the perspective of if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.  And since Jerusalem has been reunited in 1967, we think Israel has done an outstanding job of making it a free, open city.  As the President said yesterday, Jerusalem is already liberated.  It’s open to – it receives more than 2 million visitors a year.  All are welcome to pray at the mosque, pray at the Western Wall, pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

It is, frankly, in the long and violent history of Jerusalem – Jerusalem, we think for the first time, under Israeli rule, has been peaceful, open, and free.  And we have no interest in touching that and fiddling with it.  The Arabs who live in East Jerusalem, many self-identify as Palestinian.  They have the opportunity to become Israeli citizens if they wish, they can become Palestinian citizens, or they can retain their Jerusalem identity cards as sort of a hybrid.  So we’re respecting the – and we’re, frankly, giving – providing full optionality to all the Palestinians and other Arabs that live in East Jerusalem.  And within a range of outcomes that one could posit for the resolution of Jerusalem, we’re convinced this is by far the best one. 

Thank you. 

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for today.  Do any of our speakers have any closing words that they would like to offer?

Ambassador Friedman:  No, thanks.

Moderator:  Okay, I’d like to thank you, Ambassador Friedman, as well as Special Representative Hook and Mr. Berkowitz, for joining us and thank all of the reporters on the line for your participation and for your questions.


Source: Public Diplomacy – Press Office/ U.S. Embassy-Bucharest

Website: https://ro.usembassy.gov/


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