U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman penned an op-ed in the New York Post today taking down an essay published last week Foreign Policy by Robert Malley and Philip Gordon. Friedman sets out to correct seven points from Malley and Gordon’s piece on West Bank annexation and the Trump plan, which the ambassador brands, in true Trumpian fashion, as “wrong,” “wrong again,” and “extremely wrong.”

I leave it to the authors of the Foreign Policy op-ed to set the record straight on the attacks Friedman specifically levies against them. But Friedman’s article is more than just a response to the Foreign Policy op-ed. It is a set of talking points that the Trump administration has been using to defend the Peace to Prosperity plan since its release, borrowing heavily from arguments promulgated in an internal State Department memo circulated alongside the Trump plan’s release. Thus, Friedman’s editorial provides valuable insight into this White House’s approach as Israel proceeds with plans to commence annexation on the basis of the Trump plan.

Let’s address Ambassador Friedman’s claims beat-for-beat:

1, 2, and 3: Friedman’s points one, two, and three go together. The American envoy pushes back against allegations that the Trump plan makes Israel less Jewish, less democratic, and undermines prospects for a two-state solution.

On the subject of democratic governance, Ambassador Friedman charges hypocrisy against those “who purport to care so much about democracy,” yet “condemn Israel when it adheres to the will of its own citizens.”

This talking point dodges the core of the argument Friedman is trying to confront. The question is not whether the government in Jerusalem reflects the wishes of Israeli voters (although many Kachol Lavan, Labor, and Meretz supporters likely did not expect their ballots would help install Benjamin Netanyahu for another term in office). The real question is whether the voting public constitutes all of those living under Israel’s control, and whether Israel can rightly be described as a democracy if millions of its subjects cannot vote to begin with. Similarly, can Israel maintain its Jewish character if the plan is implemented?

The Trump plan leaves Palestinians confined to disconnected enclaves. Even though this swiss cheese statelet will be nominally independent, it is up to Israel alone to determine when to militarily withdraw from its territory, and the most basic aspects of Palestinian national sovereignty, such as opening a tourism zone, are severely circumscribed. Israel would also control the entity’s entry-exit regime.

If this is the Palestinian state the Trump plan envisions, how can it be a two-state solution? After all, “state” is the key word here. Friedman offers little justification here other than to say that the plan is a two-state model, but saying something doesn’t make it so. The actual Peace to Prosperity document provides a preemptive catch-all answer to these sorts of critiques, asserting that “sovereignty is an amorphous concept.” True, not all states look alike, and there is precedent for a smaller country to outsource aspects of its national defense to a larger neighbor. But such arrangements exist by mutual consent. As I wrote in February, “there is no existing state where the entry and exit of people and goods is subject to the uninvited, overarching control of an external actor except in conditions of armed conflict and military occupation.” For their part, the Palestinians will not accept this level of Israeli control, even under the guise of independence.

It will be difficult to argue that residents of the Palestinian state do not live under Israeli sovereignty. The artificial distinctions the White House draws between annexed settlements and the Palestinian territory are bound to be blurred. And given that this ostensibly is intended as a final status agreement, there will be no case to be made that Palestinians’ limited rights are merely a product of their political limbo on the way to independence. In the end, the two-state solution laid out under the Trump plan is just one of many rhetorical sleights of hand designed to enable annexation without serious intention of enacting a peace plan.

4: According to Ambassador Friedman, the Trump plan is legal because “settlements of the kind allowed under the deal don’t presumptively violate international law.”

I believe Israeli settlements do contravene international law, but the settlements are not actually what is at issue here. The Trump administration did not create the settlements and the White House’s proposal explicitly does not call for any new ones to be established in the West Bank.

Rather, the question  of the Trump plan’s validity comes down to the unilateral annexation of territory lying beyond Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, adopted unanimously in 1967, sets forth “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Under Article 25 of the UN Charter, Security Council resolutions are binding on the organization’s members, including Israel.

Note that UNSCR 242 refers only to “the acquisition of territory by war.” This does not preclude absorption of settlement blocs hugging the Green Line, as previous proposals have envisioned, so long as these territories are annexed as part of an agreed upon deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The problem with the Trump plan is that it permits Israeli annexation of West Bank territory with no input from the Palestinians; functionally the same as a unilateral land grab.

5: Is it true that “the Trump plan relegates Palestinians to second-class status?” According to Ambassador Friedman, this claim is incorrect. Friedman writes that the “The vision gives Palestinians a clear path to statehood and a huge influx of economic investment.”

Here, again, Friedman dodges. The issue raised in the Foreign Policy op-ed, as with most critiques of West Bank annexation, is of the lower political status accorded to Palestinians and not their socio-economic situation. I won’t retread over points made earlier. Suffice to say that the the scope of the Palestinian entity’s independence, as mapped out under the Trump plan, is subordinated to Israeli demands in almost every respect and that Israel will remain the de facto sovereign in the West Bank even if the proposal is implemented.

Still, Friedman’s claim raises another question. Why are political rights and economic welfare related in the Trump administration’s reading? The answer is that the Trump plan advances the idea of economic peace, popular on the Israeli right and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu specifically. The basic logic is that Palestinians are primarily interested in holding down a good job and making a decent living and that other (political) concerns are secondary.

This framing has some validity. The dire financial straits the Palestinian Authority now finds itself in portend bad political futures. But if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were  primarily a matter of money, it would have been solved a long time ago.

Moreover, if economics alone were the key American concern here, then Washington might be expected to contribute more. However, as it stands now, the Trump administration has slashed all non-security assistance to the Palestinians (with only a token $5 million restored recently). Meanwhile, the Peace to Prosperity plan calls for $50 billion in aid over ten years, but only $28 billion would be allocated to the Palestinians, with the remaining $22 billion for Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. The Trump team shunts responsibility for this sum onto other Middle Eastern states; in other words, Trump has a plan and the Arabs are going to pay for it.

6: “Giving the Palestinians a veto [on peace] guarantees stagnation and violence.”

First of all, even with external pressure, a viable agreement still requires the approval of both Israel and the Palestinians, so in a way, both sides have always had a veto.

Giving either party political cover to block a deal guarantees that no compromise will ever be reached. The problem is that the Trump administration is merely handing off this power to the Israelis.

This is explicitly laid out in the Peace to Prosperity document that allows Israel to set criteria for the Palestinians to meet in order to facilitate a withdrawal from the occupied territories. Israel can judge when the criteria have been met, and the right to reverse the process. Because the security benchmarks are so subjective, this provides Israel the ability to push off any concessions indefinitely while technically adhering to the parameters of the Trump plan.


7: Ambassador Friedman states that “Israel has made enormous concessions in agreeing to negotiate in accordance with the Trump vision.” But what concessions does the administration’s plan actually call for?

The Peace to Prosperity proposal envisions a settlement freeze, but the plan also calls for annexation of all Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The way that the Trump team reconciles these two seemingly paradoxical tenets of its plan is by restricting the settlement freeze to areas “that are not contemplated by this Vision to be part of the State of Israel.” According to the plan, settlements are not to expand “beyond their current footprint,” but the definition of the term “current footprint” remains nebulous, to be defined by an Israeli-American mapping committee (perhaps in a post-COVID world) without Palestinian input.

What this means in practice is that Israel is not permitted to build in territory already under Palestinian Authority administration or in undeveloped parts of Area C, in which geography prevents construction or where Israel has never pursued construction in over half a century. For agreeing to give up any future designs on something it never wanted in the first place, Israel is able to achieve its maximal territorial ambitions. That is the pretense of compromise Ambassador Friedman and his colleagues have laid out in their plan.

The settlement freeze (which doesn’t actually apply to any settlements) also has an expiration date: four years. After this point, if the Palestinians have not acceded to the Trump plan, Israel will no longer be bound by these restrictions and what little force they carried in the first place.

This point is especially relevant after a report made the rounds last week that the Trump administration would not approve of Israeli annexation of West Bank territory unless Israel accepted the Peace to Prosperity plan. Of course, Israel is allowed to reap the rewards of the Trump plan even if the Palestinians do not accept it. The Trump administration clarified as much last week. So even though this headline is really a nothingburger, it is central to the narrative of Israel’s “enormous concessions.” Much like Friedman’s framing of the rest of the Trump plan, this spin is an inversion of what the proposal actually calls for.

To recap: the Trump plan permits Israeli annexation of all Jewish settlements and broad swaths of the West Bank, leaving behind a Palestinian entity with highly circumscribed autonomy, a fractured territory, and no control over its own borders – in other words,  a formalized one-state outcome. It rewards minimal Israeli compromise with maximum Israeli demands. If this is the Trump administration’s policy, then its representatives, including Ambassador Friedman, should be upfront rather than obfuscate by twisting the meaning of terms like “two-state solution.” And we should all dispense with the notion that “publicly seeking to frustrate the foreign policy of our duly elected president is downright obnoxious,” as Friedman says. The actions of democratically elected leaders, whether in Washington or Jerusalem, are not somehow beyond reproach, and Friedman, who wrote many harsh rebukes against the Obama administration’s Middle East policies as a columnist for the Israeli pro-settlement outlet Arutz Sheva should know this better than anyone else.