US ambassador to Israel sits in on special envoy’s meeting with Palestinians, marking a policy shift

(JTA) — The State Department characterized the inclusion of the U.S. ambassador to Israel in meetings with Palestinian officials as an “upgrading” in relations.

David Friedman joined Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, at a meeting Tuesday with Palestinian officials in Jerusalem. The Palestinian peace negotiators reportedly requested that the meeting be held in Jerusalem because they did not want Friedman, a supporter of Israeli settlements and the U.S. official tapped to deal with Israel, to come to Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority.

Including Friedman marks a shift in U.S. policy in place during both Bush and the Obama administrations that viewed the American consul in Jerusalem as responsible for relations with the Palestinians and the ambassador in Tel Aviv as responsible for relations with Israel.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters during a regular briefing later the same day that the Palestinian negotiators “welcomed” Friedman, and that his presence at the meeting “raises the level and indicates just how important it is for this administration to try to come to some sort of peace agreement.”

“We know the process is going to be difficult. We know that both sides are going to have to compromise. But I think this is a good step and that we’ll continue to have additional meetings,” Nauert said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly refused to host Friedman in Ramallah last month during a visit by Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and Jewish son-in-law, according to reports. The Trump administration reportedly later pushed to include Friedman in such meetings.

“They had an open, cordial, and frank discussion on many topics related to peace negotiations,” a senior White House official said after Tuesday’s meeting in Jerusalem. “The administration believes that in order to give everyone the best chance to reach an ultimate deal, it is critical to have negotiators that are close with the president, and that is why the team includes Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, Greenblatt and Friedman.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greenblatt met Wednesday in Jerusalem.

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