Trump's Right-Wing Israel Envoy David Friedman Meets With Palestinian Negotiators For First Time

David Friedman with Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and David Friedman, the new United States Ambassador to Israel, attend an event marking the 50th anniversary of Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War, in Jerusalem, on May 21. Reuters/Abir Sultan/Pool

The right-wing U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman met with Palestinian representatives for the first time in Jerusalem on Tuesday, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and the State Department confirmed to Newsweek.

"A Palestinian-American meeting was held today at the King David Hotel in West Jerusalem," Erekat said in a statement.

The Palestinian delegation included Erekat, Mohammed Mustafa, economic adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj. On the American side was President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem Donald Blome, and Friedman, the statement said.

Greenblatt was scheduled to meet with Erekat and other Palestinians officials as Washington attempts to revive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The U.S. State Department confirmed Friedman's involvement to Newsweek in a statement, which said Greenblatt and Blome "introduced Ambassador David Friedman to members of the Palestinians' senior negotiating team."

It said "they had an open, cordial, and frank discussion on many topics related to peace negotiations" adding that the Trump administration believes that in order to secure the "ultimate deal" after decades of stalemate, "it is critical to have negotiators that are close with the President and that is why the team includes Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, Greenblatt and Friedman."

Erekat's statement said "the Palestinian side affirmed that its positions are based on international law and international legitimacy... ending the Israeli occupation and the establishment of the independent State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital" along the 1967 borders, territory administered by Jordan prior to the Six-Day War.

A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity earlier confirmed Friedman's attendance at the meeting to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. His attendance marks a stark shift in U.S. policy from the Bush and Obama administrations toward the conflict, as their ambassadors in the region did not attend negotiations but left them to the Secretary of State or envoys.

"Greenblatt and Friedman are meeting in Israel and the Palestinian negotiation team agreed to the request to meet them together with General Consul Blome," the White House official said earlier.

Trump has tasked Greenblatt and his son-in-law Jared Kushner to reach what he has called the "ultimate deal," one that no U.S. leader for decades has been able to achieve. It appears that he now wants Friedman to be part of that process. The Haaretz report says Abbas had twice rejected requests for Friedman to join his meetings with Greenblatt and Kushner since January.

Friedman's appointment raised fears in the West Bank that the U.S. would not a fair arbiter in any future peace negotiations and it is reported that Abbas had opposed his presence at any meetings between U.S. and Palestinian representatives.

Friedman is Trump's former bankruptcy lawyer and is known for his far-right positions on the decades-long conflict. He headed American Friends of Beit El, an organization that supports projects in the hardline West Bank settlement. Before taking the position, he attacked left-wing Jews who criticize Israel, calling them "kapos," a derogatory term for Jews who collaborated with the Nazis.

Friedman has courted controversy in the eyes of the Palestinians since taking the role in January. He advocates for the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that Arab leaders oppose. Upon Trump giving him the position, he said he was looking forward to working from Jerusalem and in May he became the first U.S. ambassador to Israel to attend an event to celebrate Israel's capture of East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War and the "unification" of the contested city.

The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a future sovereign state, alongside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as territories that would make up its state. East Jerusalem is home to some of the world's most holy sites, notably the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, known by Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, and the third-holiest site in Islam. Jews are not permitted to pray at the site, which is controlled by a Jordanian-Palestinian Islamic waqf, or trust.