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Friedman Is Trump's Point Man For Embassy's Move To Jerusalem

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We've been talking with the U.S. ambassador opening an embassy here today. David Friedman was appointed by President Trump. He once raised money for an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Now he's point man for a move Israel welcomes. The embassy supports Israel's claim to Jerusalem in a contest with Palestinians. And that was part of our talk this morning inside Jerusalem's King David Hotel.

How is this embassy move, if at all, going to advance the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians?

DAVID FRIEDMAN: Steve, I think the move is going to permit the parties to focus on issues that are, first of all, important and, second of all, solvable. What the president did when he made this decision was to remove from the Palestinians the right to veto the recognition by the United States and other countries of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And it really was an - I think in the president's view and my view, as well, it was an inappropriate card to play.

INSKEEP: But you're essentially acknowledging that this is a point for Israel or preventing a point being scored by the Palestinians.

FRIEDMAN: It's preventing an illegitimate point that could be asserted by the Palestinians. The Palestinians have legitimate issues. And I don't have the slightest issue with those arguments being advanced and being vindicated in some way or another through negotiations and compromise.

INSKEEP: I was reading a little bit of history before I came here. And in the late 1940s, the United Nations envisioned Jerusalem as some kind of international city. Israelis wanted it as their capital and gradually moved the government here as a period of years. And David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel, made a statement at one point - declarations, no. Deeds, yes. In other words, don't make any big claims but gradually move the government there. Is recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and moving the U.S. embassy another one of those deeds that solidifies Israel's claim?

FRIEDMAN: Well, first of all, I would take issue with beginning the history lesson in 1947. Go back another 3,500 years. Go back to the Bible. You know, I'll tell you an interesting story. One of the great commentators on the Bible - his name was Rashi. And he said the reason that the Bible begins with the creation of the world is to create the chain of title from God directly to the Jewish people for the land of Israel so that if the nations of the world say that the Jewish people don't own the land of Israel, they would point to the fact that God created the world and gave it to them.

So '47 is a starting point if you want. But just remember what happened in 1947 - 1947, the United Nations partitioned Palestine into a Jewish section and an Arab section with an internationalization of Jerusalem. The Arabs rejected that. The Jews accepted it. The Arabs started a war - wars of consequences.

INSKEEP: The consequence of that 1967 war was that Israel occupied territory that is seen as Palestinian territory by the international community.

FRIEDMAN: Israel - let me stop you because the facts here matter. In 1967, Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, not from the Palestinians.

INSKEEP: The country of Jordan controlled it at that time. Right.

FRIEDMAN: From the country of Jordan. And the country of Jordan's possession of the West Bank was not recognized by any nation in the world other than Great Britain and Pakistan. So Jordan was itself considered by the entire world not to have any legal rights. Who had the best legal rights at the time? Israel.

INSKEEP: Well, up to now the United States has accepted the U.N. view that this is occupied territory, the West Bank and Gaza, and that there should be two states. There should be a Palestinian state. Does the U.S. still stand behind those two ideas - that it's occupied territory that should become a Palestinian state?

FRIEDMAN: Look, I think - let me unpack that into two pieces. President Trump's made clear that if the Israelis and the Palestinians agree to a two-state solution, he would support it. And that's our policy. It's not something that the United States is prepared to impose on either side. But if they agree to it, that's certainly something the United States would support.

INSKEEP: But the U.S. isn't saying anymore that's a thing to do. You're not pushing for that, a Palestinian state.

FRIEDMAN: Well, first of all, this is a decision that Israel has to make for itself and in conjunction with its negotiations with the Palestinians. Now, look. A two-state solution would be a wonderful thing if it could be negotiated, agreed to and accomplished in a manner that doesn't threaten Israel, threaten the nascent state of Palestine, threaten Jordan, Egypt, Gaza. And one of the things that I think the Palestinians need to be able to demonstrate is that a Palestinian state. On the West Bank will be different than the Palestinian state that exists in Gaza.

INSKEEP: Some people will know that you've been working on a peace proposal with Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, and Jason Greenblatt, a presidential adviser. When do you expect to release that proposal?

FRIEDMAN: That's a good question. We're still working on it. Timing is everything in life. I think we're waiting for the right time. It's really seizing the right opportunity.

INSKEEP: Is it possible there could just be no peace proposal?

FRIEDMAN: I'd be surprised if that were the outcome. I think there is - there are proposals that could be generated that would create a more optimistic future for the Palestinians and I think something that we're anxious to try to advance.

INSKEEP: Do you have a document? People who specialize in this have been speculating about whether you do actually have a piece of paper or a stack of papers that amounts to a proposal.

FRIEDMAN: Look, it's impossible to work on something for a year and not put pen to paper. I mean, it's just not possible. I mean, I have a fairly good capacity to retain information but...

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK, so you have your papers, but your - you don't have a specific proposal to put together yet.

FRIEDMAN: I think we're still working on it. I think - I'm reluctant to characterize it.

INSKEEP: David Friedman is the United States' ambassador to Israel. He spoke with us this morning before protests in Gaza turned deadly today. Southwest of here, Israeli troops have killed more than 40 people according to Gaza health authorities, as Palestinian protesters rushed border fences. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been in Gaza for days. He's on the line. Daniel, how widespread are these protests?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: They are really spreading wide in terms of numbers and in terms of the death toll - the single deadliest day. People I saw spread across the border, not just at the designated protest point - and Gaza health officials say that five youths and one paramedic are among those killed. And health officials are also saying that their medical supplies are running out. The medical supplies to treat the wounded will run out by tomorrow, and they're calling on Egypt to let - permit wounded into Egyptian hospitals.

INSKEEP: Oh, which is a reminder that what's being protested here is the difficulty of getting in and out of Gaza - one thing, anyway.

ESTRIN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: OK, that's NPR's Daniel Estrin. We've been hearing from him throughout the morning, and we'll hear from him some more as protests continue in Gaza even as an embassy opening ceremony continues right here in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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