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What Ambassador David Friedman meant—and why his critics lied about it

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (left) greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: GPO.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (left) greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: GPO.

By Stephen M. Flatow/

Public figures occasionally misspeak. That is, they say something that is clearly untrue, not because they are intentionally lying but because they innocently stumbled in their articulation of some thought.

A famous example occurred during the 2008 presidential campaign, when Democratic nominee Barack Obama was interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on the ABC-TV news program “This Week.” At one point, Obama used the phrase “my Muslim faith.”

Now, Obama obviously did not intend to say that. He had already said many times that he is a Christian, in response to various conspiracy theorists who were claiming he was a secret Muslim. He meant to say, “my Christian faith,” but he stumbled. Stephanopoulos happened to be a very sympathetic interviewer, and he kindly jumped in right away and corrected the nominee. “My Christian faith,” Stephanopoulos interjected, at which point Obama realized his error and corrected it.

The Israeli journalist who interviewed U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman last week, however, was not so kind. Friedman was discussing Israeli settlements in the territories with a reporter from the Israeli news outlet Walla. Friedman shifted back and forth between referring to “the settlements” and referring to “Israel.” At one point, after having just used the term “Israel,” he remarked, “I mean, they’re only occupying 2 percent of the West Bank.”

It was obvious Friedman was referring to the fact that the amount of land on which Jewish homes and buildings sit in the territories is barely 2 percent of all of Judea and Samaria. That’s an indisputable fact.

Any fair-minded person knows that’s what he meant. But Friedman’s opponents are not fair-minded people. They are people with an agenda. They believe passionately that all the Jews living in Judea and Samaria should be kicked out, as soon as possible, and replaced with a sovereign Palestinian Arab state.

To advance that agenda, the Palestinians and their supporters try to demonize the Jewish residents of the territories. They want the world to believe that Jewish settlers are evil, racist, aggressive, colonialists. Perpetuating that image helps whip up support for the idea of expelling all the Jews.

Admitting the settlements take up only a very small amount of land undermines the Palestinian state agenda. It defuses the claims about “evil settlers.” It also reminds everyone that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is deeply intolerant and bigoted; the PA cannot stand the thought of Jewish neighbors, even though they live in such a tiny portion of the territories.

That’s why the critics of Israel went ballistic over Friedman’s statement. They know what he really meant. But they don’t want word getting out about that. So, they decided to pretend they didn’t know what he was saying. They went crazy, in the hope of making him look crazy.

The Forward, choosing to argue with Friedman rather than just report the story, headlined its article, “American Ambassador Falsely Claims Israel Occupies Only 2% Of West Bank.” The article said flatly, “Friedman’s assertion is incorrect,” without explaining what Friedman meant.

Meanwhile, J Street rushed to issue an agonized press release, expressing its “deep concern” about Friedman’s statement. “The West Bank remains entirely under occupation,” J Street huffed, which is of course patently false.

The J Streeters like to pretend that Israel still controls all of Judea and Samaria. They don’t want the public to be reminded that there is such a thing as a PA, and that it rules over about 40 percent of Judea and Samaria, including the cities where 98 percent of the Palestinian Arabs live. Bringing that up would undermine the Palestinian statehood crusade.

The 2 percent figure that Friedman obviously had in mind is no secret. Just last year, Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer tweeted, “Jewish communities in the West Bank take up under 2% of the land; that is, over 98% of the West Bank contains no Jewish residents at all.”

But you don’t have to believe the Jewish Agency. B’Tselem, the extreme left-wing Israeli group, reports on its website that “the built-up areas of the settlements constitute only 1.7% of the land in the West Bank.” And Human Rights Watch, certainly no fan of Israel or settlements, reported last year that “the built-up area of residential settlements covers 6,000 hectares”—which is to say, 1.1 percent of the land in Judea and Samaria.

Individual settlements do control some additional land, aside from the areas on which they have built. And the Israeli government also controls some uninhabited land there. Nonetheless, the 2 percent figure is powerful and relevant. It’s an important reminder that the settlements are not the obstacle to peace, and that the critics of the settlements engage in wild exaggerations and demonization for political purposes. They proved that again this week with their absurdly unfair and disingenuous response to Friedman.

Stephen M. Flatow, a vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, is an attorney in New Jersey and the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995.

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