OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Dividing Jerusalem 101

The U.S. administration is putting immense pressure on the Israeli government to allow the reopening of the consulate in the heart of the Jewish state’s capital.

The former U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, July 19, 2009. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The former U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, July 19, 2009. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Amir Avivi and Or Yissachar

“Dividing Jerusalem 101” is the way Israeli Foreign Ministry officials describe the Biden administration’s intention to reopen a U.S. consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem. The administration has made it clear that it would offer confidence-building concessions to the Palestinians to counter Trump-administration policies that they perceived as being too pro-Israel.

In contrast to the Obama White House, the Biden administration has been pushing Israel much more discreetly. It has held back making outlandish demands and has even been backing Israel at the United Nations. Yet the U.S. State Department’s persistent push to reopen the consulate casts serious doubts on its commitment to Israel’s security, its understanding of Middle East dynamics and its ability to serve as a leading voice in this harsh neighborhood.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that he was planning to be “moving forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of deepening of ties with the Palestinians.”

He pledged to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to open it in Jerusalem—while visiting him in Ramallah.

Last week, a group of 35 senators introduced a bill meant to torpedo the move, against which the Israeli government has already cautioned, due to the implications on Israel-U.S. relations and on Jerusalem’s status.

For some, this would seem like a non-issue. It’s only natural for the United States to be interested in providing consular services to and even operate a diplomatic mission for Palestinians. The obvious question, though, would be: Why in Israel?

The State Department is planning on reopening the consulate in question in downtown Jerusalem—on Agron Street, just around the corner from the bustling Mamilla Mall, and a mere 1,400 feet from the Israeli Prime Minister’s Residence. Since 1948, the U.S. has recognized this location as an undisputed, inseparable part of Israeli territory. The problem, therefore, is the chosen location.

Since the closing of the previous consulate by the Trump administration two years ago, the building has been serving as the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Israel. Following the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, the U.S. has been operating a Palestinian Affairs Unit, a sub-department of the embassy, rather than an entity in and of itself, for the purpose of providing services to Palestinians.

A much more sensible and convenient solution would be to open such a consulate in Abu Dis or in a dense Palestinian population center such as Ramallah, home of the Palestinian leader, prime minister and parliament buildings. But opting for Jerusalem is clearly intentional. It indicates that the administration is seeking to open a de facto embassy inside Jerusalem that serves as an official liaison office with Palestinian governmental institutions.

In the Middle East, symbolism is key, especially in a city like Jerusalem, which has the potential to be a volatile tinderbox. It’s a place where gestures and words, not to mention blatant actions, can be interpreted in various ways, leading to anything and everything, including violent riots.

The Palestinians are not oblivious to this point. P.A. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, for example, has stated that the move is “important” for Palestinians, because “the message from this [Biden] administration is that Jerusalem is not one [united Israeli] city and that the American administration does not recognize the annexation of Arab Jerusalem by the Israeli side. We want the American consulate to constitute the seed of a U.S. embassy in the State of Palestine.”

Administration officials often describe this move as simply reversing an old U.S. policy, reopening a consulate that used to operate for decades from the same location. This would not only run counter to U.S. law itself—the “Jerusalem Embassy Act,” which determines that “Jerusalem should remain an undivided city … recognized as the capital of the State of Israel”—but also fails to recognize changed reality on the ground. Since President Trump allowed the law, originally passed by Congress in 1995, to finally take effect in 2018, it cannot simply be flouted by government officials.

Not only that, but since 1844, more than a century before the establishment of the State of Israel, the historic complex served both Jews and Arabs. Using this kind of anachronism by opening a de facto embassy for Palestinians in the heart of Israel would thereby ignore this basic reality and risk far-reaching implications.

Yet even those who accept the “east Jerusalem” narrative and claim that Israel should divide its eternal capital would be baffled by the notion of a consulate west of the “green line,” in territory that has never been, and never even been suggested to be, under Palestinian control.

There is no way around coming to the conclusion that this is a purely political decision. The administration is well aware that embassies, consulates and any diplomatic representation symbolize recognition of sovereignty. The sensitivity of such a political declaration in the heart of Jerusalem would not only alienate the Israeli public, causing a long-term negative impact that undermines its trust in the U.S. administration and impairing collaboration elsewhere but will only drive peace further away.

Achieving peace will only be possible through acknowledging reality. Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal, undivided capital, and setting false expectations for Palestinians will only be detrimental to the peace process.

Furthermore, Israel cannot afford to sit idly by as its sovereignty in its capital is challenged—especially by an ally. The Israeli government, whose stability may also be challenged by such a move, must make it crystal clear to the U.S. administration that no attempts to divide Jerusalem, even through the back door, will be tolerated.

A great success of the Trump administration was clarifying the status of Jerusalem as an inseparable part of Israel. The establishment of a Palestinian consulate in the heart of Jerusalem is an unbelievably petty and reckless step that directly challenges Israel’s sovereignty in its capital.

The Biden administration should reconsider a policy that will return ambiguity to the status of the Holy City, thus achieving causing damage with no benefits. It is not too late for the administration to formulate a new policy—one providing consular and diplomatic services to the Palestinians without representing a threat to Israel’s sovereignty and national security.

IDF Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Amir Avivi is the founder and CEO of Habithonistim–Protectors of Israel.

Or Yissachar is a researcher at Israel’s Defense and Security Forum (IDSF)—HaBithonistim, and an Associate Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES).

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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