State Dept. distances itself from US Israel envoy's West Bank comments

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Story highlights

  • Ambassador David Friedman said Israel is "only occupying 2% of the West Bank"
  • A State Department spokeswoman said his comments "should not be read as a shift in US policy"

(CNN)The State Department distanced itself from its ambassador to Israel Thursday, after he broke with decades-long US policy by claiming that Israeli settlements built after 1967 are a part of Israel.

Ambassador David Friedman told Walla News that Israel is "only occupying 2% of the West Bank" and said "settlements are part of Israel."
"I think that was always the expectation when resolution 242 was adopted in 1967," Friedman said, talking about the UN Security Council resolutions that address the Arab-Israeli conflict. "The idea was that Israel would be entitled to secure borders. The existing borders, the 1967 borders, were viewed by everybody as not secure, so Israel would retain a meaningful portion of the West Bank, and it would return that which it didn't need for peace and security."
    Friedman continued: "There is 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."
    The Trump administration has said that settlement activity is not helpful to reaching a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians which President Donald Trump has said is a top priority.
    State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that Friedman's comments "should not be read as a way to prejudge the outcome of any negotiations" between Israelis and Palestinians and "should not be read as a shift in US policy."
    "I just want to be clear that our policy has not changed," Nauert said. "I want to be crystal clear."
    Nauert said she had heard about Friedman's comments, but had not read the interview or spoken with the ambassador.
    It was the second time this month Nauert was forced to walk back comments by Friedman. Earlier this month Friedman referred to the "alleged occupation" in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
    Trump faced intense criticism for choosing Friedman, his former bankruptcy lawyer, as his ambassador to Israel because of previous inflammatory remarks that ran counter to longstanding US policy toward Israel. He promised during his confirmation hearing to adhere to Trump's foreign policy.
    Nauert noted that the US has "some very effective leaders and representatives" tasked by Trump to lead US peace efforts, naming Jason Greenblatt, US special representative for international negotiations, and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and special adviser. Goldblatt is in the region holding talks with Israelis and Palestinians.