JERUSALEM – The U.S. ambassador to Israel raised eyebrows Thursday by saying that Israel occupies a tiny portion of the West Bank — just 2 percent — and that settlements there are part of the Jewish state proper.
The comments angered the Palestinians and are at odds with decades of U.S policy in the Mideast.
"I think the settlements are part of Israel," American Ambassador David Friedman said in an interview with the Israeli news site Walla.
He refrained from answering when asked if settlements would be removed in a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
"They (Israelis) are only occupying 2 percent of the West Bank," he said.
A State Department spokeswoman later said Friedman's remarks "should not be ready as a change in U.S. policy."
"I'm aware of what he said," spokeswoman Heath Nauert told reporters in Washington. "His comments — and I want to be crystal clear about this — should not be read as a way to prejudge the outcome of any negotiations that the U.S. would have with the Israelis and the Palestinians. It should also not indicate a shift in U.S. policy."
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war. The Palestinians have limited autonomy in 40 percent of the area, with Israel in full control over the remaining 60 percent. Palestinians demand the West Bank as part of a future state.
The Palestinians, along with much of the international community, view Israel's West Bank settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace. Israel 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 U.S 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.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called Friedman's comments "false and misleading." He said in a statement that "such positions undermine ongoing efforts toward achieving a just and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine," based on 1967 borders.
Friedman is a member of President Donald Trump's team spearheading efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
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 donations to Israeli settlements, opposition to Palestinian statehood and vocal support for hard-line Israeli government positions.
In an interview to the Jerusalem Post earlier this month Friedman referred to the "alleged occupation" of Palestinian territories. The State Department later clarified that his comments did not reflect a change in U.S. policy.
Trump has called an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord "the ultimate deal," and has sent envoys, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, to meet with the two sides. But little apparent progress has been made, and the Palestinians have expressed frustration over the efforts.