U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has said he was misquoted in comments this week that suggested the United States would bypass Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas if he refused to engage with the Trump administration.
“The United States is not seeking 'to replace' Mahmoud Abbas,” Friedman said in a tweet on Thursday. “It is for the Palestinian people to choose its leadership.”
Friedman's reported comments about Abbas came from an interview he did with a small religious newspaper called Shevi'i. The weekly, which is distributed in synagogues in Israel, is planning to release the interview on Friday, but excerpts had appeared in other publications earlier this week.
“Time doesn’t stand still … and if he is not interested is negotiating — I am sure somebody else will. Vacuums tend to be filled. If he creates a vacuum I am sure somebody will fill it,” an excerpt published on Axios read.
“We will move forward” with the peace process, Friedman continued in the excerpted comments. “The U.S. wants to help the Palestinian people — if the leadership is not on the same page then so be it, but we will not abandon the desire to improve the life of Palestinians.”
It was unclear from Friedman's statement on Thursday whether he denied the comments in the interview with Shevi'i itself or the reports that appeared in other Israeli media outlets.
The reported remarks about Abbas stoked outrage among Palestinians. Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and chief Palestinian negotiator in the moribund peace process, released a statement that called the comments “irresponsible and solely guided to advance Israeli colonialism, an enterprise that [Friedman] has been personally committed to as one of its funders.”
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an aide to Abbas, told the Associated Press that Friedman's reported remarks were a “blatant interference in Palestinian affairs.”
Abbas, who turned 83 this week, has been Palestinian president since 2005. He has long called for negotiations to reach a two-state solution with Israel. However, after the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December and announced plans to move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv, Abbas said the United States could no longer be considered an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and suspended official contacts with it.
Tensions have been especially acute between Abbas and Friedman, an Orthodox Jew who had worked as Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer and had no experience in diplomacy before becoming the U.S. envoy in Israel. In a speech this month, Abbas called Friedman a “son of a dog” — comments that were followed a few days later by a report published by the Palestinian Authority that called for Friedman to be added to a “global terror list.”
At a conference on anti-Semitism in Jerusalem, Friedman brought up Abbas's “son of a dog” comment. “Anti-Semitism or political discourse? Not for me to judge. I leave that all up to you,” he said.
In his interview with Shevi'i, Friedman reportedly said Abbas's comments were “very undiplomatic” and “a disservice to his people,” adding “calling me names is not going to improve the situation of the Palestinians.”
Despite the rhetoric, analysts have said Abbas has little leverage over the United States, given the Palestinian Authority's economic reliance on Israel and its increasingly distant relationship with many Arab nations. Friedman's reported comments in his interview with Shevi'i seemed to confirm fears that Abbas is viewed as irrelevant by the United States.
During a recent trip to the United States, Abbas underwent medical checks at a hospital. He later said in a televised interview the results were “positive.”
More on WorldViews