A Trump administration decision to assign Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to the Mideast negotiating team made waves Tuesday as the Palestinians refused to host a meeting in Ramallah as scheduled. Instead, the Palestinian delegation came to Yerushalayim, where Friedman participated.
A senior White House official described the meeting as “open, cordial and frank.”
“The administration believes that in order to give everyone the best chance to reach an ultimate deal, it is critical to have negotiators that are close with the president, and that is why the team includes senior adviser Jared Kushner, special envoy Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador Friedman,” the official said.
Friedman’s designation as a member of the negotiating team represents a departure from policy. As ambassador to Israel, his attendance at such meetings would normally be ruled out by diplomatic protocol.
According to Haaretz, the issue of Friedman’s role came up during Trump’s meeting in Beit Lechem with Abbas a month and a half ago. Trump noted Friedman’s absence and inquired about it. When informed of the standing policy, he overruled it.
The Palestinians have taken offense at the addition of Friedman. Three weeks ago, during Kushner and Greenblatt’s visit to the region, the two wanted Friedman to attend a meeting with Abbas. The latter refused, and Palestinian officials said Abbas will not agree to meet with Friedman.
Fatah Central Committee Member Azzam al-Ahmad said in an interview Monday that they are opposed to hosting Friedman in Ramallah.
“Tomorrow there will be a new round of talks with the Palestinian delegation in West Jerusalem because we do not want one of the members of the [American] delegation to come to us… Why? Because he is the ambassador of America in Israel and the purview of his work is in Israel,” Ahmad said.
For the Palestinians, the issue is presumably not merely one of protocol. Before his ambassadorial appointment, Friedman was an active supporter of Israeli building in Yehudah and Shomron. Buildings in Beit El near Ramallah bear his family’s name.
The London-based al-Hayat reported in June that Abbas’ objection to Friedman was due to his support for the Israeli presence in Yehudah and Shomron.
The inclusion of the U.S. ambassador to Israel in meetings with the Palestinians is not without precedent. During the Clinton administration, then-ambassador Martin Indyk took part in discussions with the Palestinian side in 1999–2000.
Subsequently, the policy was established that the American consul in Yerushalayim was charged with relations with the Palestinians, while the ambassador in Tel Aviv was responsible for Israel. The ambassadors who succeeded Indyk — Daniel Kurtzer, Richard Jones, James Cunningham and Dan Shapiro — were accordingly not in attendance at working meetings with the PA.
However, President Trump is having his way. Greenblatt introduced Friedman to the Palestinians’ senior negotiating team at the King David Hotel on Tuesday, accompanied by U.S. Consul General Donald Blome.
The Palestinian delegation included chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, PA General Intelligence Chief Majid Faraj, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s economic adviser, Muhammed Mustafa.