In the Lead-up to the ‘Deal of the Century,’ State Department Report Codifies Administration’s Middle East Policy
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, the Golan Heights, and the 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 the report 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, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip; this term also appeared in the first report released for the Trump administration released 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-wing’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 percent of the West Bank.” Area C, which Israel controls in its entirety, accounts for approximately 61 percent 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 from his predecessor, Daniel Shapiro. In May 2016, one 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 the illegal West Bank settlement of Beit El. Among the beneficiaries of the approximately $2 million in donations raised each year in the United States 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 the Gaza Strip 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 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. Israel’s Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, an inhabitant of the settlement of Nokdim, wrote on Twitter that the recent report constituted proof “of the lie of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Lieberman’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 Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed legislation to apply Israeli law to academic institutions in the West Bank, such as Ariel University, which was founded in 1982 in an Israeli settlement that bears the same name. In the same month, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, 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. PMW is headed by Itamar Marcus, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. Prior to establishing PMW, Marcus headed the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP), which monitored the content of Palestinian schoolbooks. CMIP reportedly broke ties with Marcus as a result of disparities in the reports pertaining to Palestinian schoolbooks. In 2013, an Israeli district court judge rejected Marcus’ testimony as head of PWM on the grounds that it was “biased.”
The report comes at a particularly sensitive time, not to mention a low point, in US-Palestinian relations following the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which will take place next month on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Israeli state. The US peace plan for the Middle East is also slated to be announced in May, following more than a year of discussions led by Trump’s son-in-law. The recent ‘March of Return’ protests in Gaza, which have led to 34 Palestinians deaths thus far, add a further layer of controversy to the report, as they, inter alia, have sought to raise the international community’s awareness of the ongoing humanitarian crisis resulting from the Israeli-imposed blockade on Gaza.
The Palestinian leadership views the State Department’s report as emblematic of the US government’s partiality towards Israel’s presence in Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki issued a statement on the Palestinian radio in response to the report.
According to al-Maliki, “the removal of the term Occupied Territories in favor of the West Bank and Gaza indicates bias in favor of Israel and the settlement system.” He further claims that the US has “lost all credibility.” These comments offer a further premonition that what Trump has termed ‘the deal of the century’ is likely to implode on arrival.