(October 27, 2021 / JNS) One ongoing source of political drama is whether U.S. President Joseph Biden will follow through with his campaign promise to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem. Some defenders of Israel have made Israel’s stand against reversing former President Donald Trump’s closing of the consulate a diplomatic Alamo. Like the valiant fighters in San Antonio, however, they will most likely lose the battle.
The plan to reopen the consulate is no surprise, so Israel should have no illusions about the president’s commitment. Still, as I wrote shortly after he was elected, no separate consulate is necessary for the Palestinians. As I’ve also noted, a better option—legally, diplomatically and rationally—would be to establish the consulate in the Palestinian Authority, specifically in Ramallah, where the Palestinian leadership and institutions are located. This would send an important message to the Palestinians that, like former President Donald Trump, Biden will not support the Palestinian demand to make Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state. A member of the Biden team proposed this alternative in 2017. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Hady Amr suggested reopening a U.S. mission in the Palestinian territories to signal a commitment to the two-state solution. Unfortunately, neither Amr nor anyone else in the administration seems to be interested in that idea now.
The only reason the consulate has not already reopened is that Biden feared doing so would alienate right-wing coalition members, bring down the government and open the door to the return of Benjamin Netanyahu, which he wants to avoid. The administration is said to believe the danger to the coalition will pass after the budget is passed (if it passes) in November. The Times of Israel reported, however, that Israel has warned the United States the government could still fall afterward. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also expressed the concern during a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken that reopening the consulate would lead other countries to do the same and damage Israel’s sovereignty over the city.
Just as advocates of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem argued all that needed to be done was to change the sign on the door, advocates of reopening the consulate say the same thing. The building was never closed, and it has continued to serve the Palestinians, which is also an argument for maintaining the status quo.
Israel’s case against reopening the consulate is based on the law and politics. According to the 1963 Vienna Convention of Consular Relations, the United States must have Israel’s consent to establish a consular post on its territory. There are other legal arguments, and the administration has not disputed the legal justification for Israel’s objection; nevertheless, legality is rarely relevant when it comes to Israel. Politics usually trumps the law.
Politically, the consulate was historically problematic. It was a longtime bastion of anti-Semites and, later, critics of Israel who did not always toe the administration line on policy towards Israel.
Israel’s main objection, however, is that opening the consulate undermines Israel’s sovereignty and the former administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Taking Jerusalem off the table was one of Trump’s most important accomplishments, and one the Palestinians and their supporters want to reverse. The last thing Biden should do if he harbors any interest in pursuing a peace agreement is to encourage Palestinian fantasies that the city will be divided and a capital established there for a Palestinian state.
For Biden, however, opening the consulate is seen as important to his goal of cultivating better relations with the Palestinians. He will be loathe to renege on his promise.
Critics rightly ask why the United States continues making concessions to the Palestinians when getting nothing in return. The Palestinian Authority remains corrupt and undemocratic, it continues the pay-for-slay policy and incitement, and its leaders remain belligerent and committed to the creation of a Palestinian state from the river to the sea.
The answer is that it shouldn’t but, alas, Biden is determined to go down this path. Moreover, he will probably be less sympathetic to Israel’s concerns after the announcement of plans to build more housing in the settlements, a decision Israel knows will anger the president.
Israel may hope the Netanyahu bogeyman will cause Biden to give up the idea altogether, but that doesn’t seem likely given Blinken’s recent reiteration of the commitment to reopen the consulate. Ultimately, the government is faced with two choices: grant or deny the U.S. permission to reopen the consulate.
If the United States makes a formal request and it is denied, Israel risks alienating its most important ally at a time it wants American support to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb, and it needs Biden and other pro-Israel Democrats to hold the line against Israel’s critics in Congress. Perhaps Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will bet on a Republican winning the White House in 2024 and reversing the policy again, but that is three long years off.
It may flout international law, but the United States could conceivably open the consulate without Israel’s consent. Beyond the pro-Israel choir, I suspect there won’t be any opposition to doing so. This would be the worst case, as Israel will have angered the president for nothing.
It is far more likely Israel will give in. The U.S. consulate was first opened in 1844, and while reopening it may be politically and symbolically problematic, it is likely to have little if any impact on U.S. policy towards Israel or on Israeli policy. Israel insisted Jerusalem was the indivisible capital of Israel before the consulate was closed, after it was subsumed by the embassy, and will not change that position once the consulate reopens.
On the positive side, Bennett can use the decision as a bargaining chip to get items such as advanced weapons on his wish list. In addition, he may use it to fend off pressure to make other concessions. As a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel, Bennett can tell Biden, “ ‘Look, I already gave you the consulate, you can’t keep making such big asks.’ ”
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”
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