Reopening of consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem next hurdle in US-Israeli relations

A plaque outside the former US consulate in Jerusalem (Reuters)

Rosie Scammell

The National  /  November 12, 2021

Washington has had a diplomatic presence in Jerusalem since 1844.

The fate of the US consulate to the Palestinians hangs in the balance as Israel seeks to block a bid by Washington to reopen its mission in Jerusalem.

The diplomatic row comes as US President Joe Biden attempts to overhaul policy enacted by his predecessor Donald Trump, who repeatedly broke with international consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After Mr Trump announced the US embassy to Israel must be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the consulate to the Palestinians was subsumed into the new mission in 2019.

Since taking office in January, Mr Biden has stopped short of ordering American diplomats back to Tel Aviv which remains the centre for embassies to Israel.

His administration instead plans to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem, a proposal resolutely opposed by Israel.

“There is no place for a US consulate which serves the Palestinians in Jerusalem,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Saturday.

The right-wing Mr Bennett’s comments came a day after his government passed the budget, a major hurdle for the fragile coalition. The consulate issue is widely seen as the next challenge for the Cabinet, a broad alliance which includes Arab-Israelis and left-wing politicians.

“The new government under Naftali Bennett specifically asked the administration to hold off on reopening the consulate at least until the budget was passed in Israel,” said Jake Walles, a former US consul general in Jerusalem.

“The administration agreed to that,” said Mr Walles, who served in the Jerusalem mission from 2005 to 2009. The budget passed last week.

While Mr Bennett has been vocal in his criticism of Washington’s plans, the Biden administration has been wary of publicly airing the dispute.

“We’ve been very clear about our intentions,” Ned Price, spokesman for the US State Department, said last week without elaborating.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has urged the Biden administration to forge ahead with its plans, and said he is “sure that the United States does not need the permission” of Israel.

“I hope that while the current American administration is reversing things, we hope that they will reverse all things that have to do with Palestine, including the reopening of the consulate,” he said.

With Israeli and American officials at loggerheads over the affair, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has suggested the US instead move its consulate to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

“If they want to open a consulate in Ramallah, we have no problem with that,” he said.

Some countries such as Germany have diplomatic missions in Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority.

But the PA has already dismissed such an idea and, as Mr Walles noted, the majority of consulates to the Palestinians are in Jerusalem.

“It’s hard to see why that can continue to exist and the United States can’t have a consulate that existed up to a few years ago,” he told journalists.

The US has had a diplomatic presence in Jerusalem since 1844, more than a century before the establishment of Israel.

The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while Israel claims the whole city as its capital.

Yael Mizrahi-Arnaud, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think tank, predicted a compromise would ultimately be reached.

“The US surely doesn’t want to fight too many fights with Israel at once, and the Biden administration’s current priority is moving forward with a return to negotiations with Iran,” she told The National.

Meanwhile, for Mr Bennett, national policymaking will likely prevail over the diplomatic spat.

“Since they just succeeded in passing the budget and can finally get down to the business of governing, I am doubtful if this issue would actually bring down the government,” said Ms Mizrahi-Arnaud.

“All the sides have too much at stake right now.”

Rosie Scammell – correspondent, Jerusalem