The US ambassador in Tel Aviv angered Palestinians with a comment downplaying "Israel's" 50-year occupation of the West Bank in the second such spat in a month. In a video interview with "Israeli" news site Walla, broadcast in full Friday, Ambassador David Friedman said the apartheid regime is "only occupying 2 percent of the West Bank."
The "Israeli' entity occupied the West Bank in the 1967 war. The Palestinians had limited autonomy in 40 percent of the area, with the entity in full control over the remaining 60 percent. Palestinians demand the occupied West Bank as part of a future state.
Friedman's statement brought an angry response from Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat after an excerpt from the interview was aired Thursday evening.
"‘Israel' is internationally recognized as the occupying power over 100 percent of Palestine, including in and around occupied East Jerusalem [al-Quds]," Erekat said.
He said Friedman's latest comment was "not only false and misleading but contradicts international law, United Nations resolutions and also the historical US position."
"It is not the first time that Mr. David Friedman has exploited his position as US ambassador to advocate and validate the 'Israeli' government's policies of occupation and annexation," Erekat added.
The US State Department, meanwhile, appeared to distance itself from its envoy.
"His comments ... should not be read as a way to prejudge the outcome of any negotiation that the US would have with ‘Israel' and the Palestinians," spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington Thursday.
"It should not be read as a change in US policy."
The Yesha Council, which represents settlers across the occupied West Bank, welcomed the ambassador's comments.
"Ambassador Friedman should be commended for using facts to describe the reality" in the West Bank, it said in a statement.
It said that the area taken up by settlements and their roads totaled less than 2 percent of the ground, but it did not refer to the military occupation which covers the entire territory.
Early in September, Friedman caused a stir when in an interview with the Jerusalem Post he referred to the "alleged occupation."
A US official told AFP then that the ambassador's comment "does not represent a shift in US policy."
More than 600,000 "Israeli" settlers now live in settlements in the territory which are regarded as illegal by most of the international community. The "Israeli" entity's disputes this, saying the fate of the settlements must be resolved through negotiations with the Palestinians.
"Obviously, there is important security considerations to those settlements, there's important nationalistic, historical and religious significance to those settlements and I think the settlers view themselves as ‘Israelis', and ‘Israel' views the settlers as Israelis," Friedman said.
Nabil Shaath, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, responded in a video clip on Twitter that the US ambassador had displayed "absolute ignorance of facts of law and of the position of the United States."
Friedman's remarks are "very bad news for the future of any American attempt to make peace in the Middle East," Shaath added.
US President Donald Trump is seeking to restart frozen "Israel"-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Friedman said the president remained committed to a peace agreement but had not set any formal time frame.
"I would expect [a deal] within months," he said. "But we're not going to limit ourselves to any hard deadline. We're trying to get it done right, not done fast."
The Palestinians have grown increasingly concerned by Trump and his team - including Friedman - who have yet to publicly commit to the idea of an independent Palestinian state alongside the "Israel", the so-called "two-state solution."
"I think that phrase has lost its meaning," Friedman told Walla.
"It means different things to different people."
Asked by the interviewer what the phrase meant to him, Friedman said, "I'm not sure. I'm not focusing on labels I'm focusing on solutions."
Friedman, Trump's former bankruptcy attorney, was appointed ambassador earlier this year, a move that was opposed by Democrats and some Jewish groups because of Friedman's donations to "Israeli" settlements, opposition to Palestinian statehood and vocal support for hardline "Israeli" regime positions.
Source: News Agencies, Edited by website team