(October 22, 2021 / JNS) The Biden administration wants to reopen a consulate for Palestinian affairs in Jerusalem as part of its efforts to reverse former U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies and achievements. Trump subsumed the consulate into the U.S. embassy when he moved it from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018—a move that was hailed by every friend of Israel and that finally fulfilled the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which explicitly states, “Since 1950, the city of Jerusalem has been the capital of the State of Israel.”
The Biden administration’s plan, however, would divide the united capital of Jerusalem and push any chance for peace with the Palestinians farther away, as well as break diplomatic norms, violate U.S. law and damage America’s special relationship with Israel.
Last week, Israel’s Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said Israel “cannot and will not agree to divide Jerusalem by permitting a U.S.-Palestinian consulate to open.” He clarified that it would “violate Israeli and U.S. law, and betray the commitment of both countries to Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.”
This is a sharp contrast to the stance U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has taken, especially as he announced in May that America would reopen the Jerusalem consulate it had used in the past to engage with the Palestinians. The question is: Why would the Biden administration want to insult its closest ally in the Middle East to placate the Palestinians, who are offering nothing in return? What does it gain in the short or long term other than dividing the capital of the Jewish state?
Former Jerusalem Mayor and current Likud Knesset member Nir Barkat told JNS that the Biden administration’s plan to unilaterally open the consulate in the heart of Jerusalem “will destabilize the Middle East, damage Israel’s security and give a prize to radical Islam by dividing the Jewish capital.”
Barkat suggested that if Biden’s team wants to improve relations with the Palestinians, “they should send a diplomatic mission to Ramallah and demand that they stop supporting terrorists, change their education system, and instead of violence, focus on peace for future generations.”
Barkat has been busy over the last few months lobbying against the consulate and has also been pushing to outlaw it.
In September, he met with U.S. senators and congressmen during a trip to Washington and asked them to oppose the opening of the consulate. His main message to them, reiterated on his Twitter feed, was “we cannot allow the opening of a Palestinian consulate which would divide Jerusalem—the eternal, united and undivided capital of the Jewish people.”
‘A terrible idea’
Others have expressed their opposition as well.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that opening a U.S. consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem was “a terrible idea for the United States, Israel and the Palestinian people.”
Matan Peleg, chairman of Im Tirzu and a signatory to a letter sent by 150 bereaved families to Blinken this week, wrote: “If the secretary of state wants to promote ‘peace,’ the last thing he should do is set up a special American consulate for Palestinians in the capital of Israel.”
“Apart from the fact that this tramples Israeli sovereignty and lacks any minimal respect for a friendly nation, it also signals to the Palestinians that the path of recalcitrance and resistance is acceptable, and pays off. This step will encourage nothing but terrorism,” he said.
According to Itamar Marcus from Palestinian Media Watch, “American law is quite clear. The U.S. ‘Jerusalem Embassy Act’ repeatedly stresses the unity and indivisibility of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”
In an article recently published in Newsweek, attorneys Nathan Lewin and Alyza D. Lewin wrote that while many consider the consulate to be “a minor administrative change,” it is actually “nothing less than a devious scheme to reverse U.S. recognition that Jerusalem is in Israel. … This is not about dividing Jerusalem. It is about denying Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem.”
However, Thomas Nides, who was confirmed by a Senate committee this week to be incoming U.S. Ambassador to Israel, seemed to support opening the consulate when he said in September during his confirmation hearing, “That consulate has existed, in one form or another, for almost 130 years.”
‘They never have any conditions for anything’
The Biden administration’s desire to reopen the consulate raises a lot of questions, as well as eyebrows, and appears to suggest that the United States is not neutral on the matter and is intentionally taking the Palestinian side.
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S. policy in the Middle East at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, told JNS the Biden team’s effort is “a very hostile move.”
“It’s not just hostile to Israel,” he said. “These moves are irrational and are also bad for the Palestinian people. This is very strange and unusual.”
He noted that both the United States and the Palestinians would like to roll back Trump’s policies and this is one of them.
“The Biden administration has already gone back on issues such as funding for the Palestinian Authority, they restored funding for UNRWA, they are talking about reopening the PLO office in Washington, and they are talking about the two-state solution and starting a diplomatic process.”
Gilboa noted the Biden administration’s argument that this move will encourage the Palestinians to return to negotiations.
He rejected this argument outright, noting that former President Barack Obama “was the most pro-Palestinian president, maybe in history, at least since Carter, and the Palestinians still refused to come to the table,” he said.
Gilboa lambasted the Biden administration for its “typical error in American diplomacy.”
“They do all kinds of things without any conditions,” he said, noting, for example, the U.S. appeasement-oriented diplomatic approach at the United Nations, the U.N. Human Rights Council and with regard to Iran.
For instance, he said, America can restore funding to the P.A. while also demanding certain changes, “and they never do it,” he said. “They never have any conditions for anything. At least require some concessions from the other side. It’s poor diplomatic management and not just poor policy.”
“Just connect the dots and see how many failures they have in intelligence,” he said. “Afghanistan is a failure. China is a failure. So maybe the Palestinian issue is also a failure.”
Gilboa suggested that the United States is trying to link the Palestinian issue, the Abraham Accords and Iran.
“They are saying to Israel, ‘You need to cooperate on the Palestinian issue in order for us to be more favorable to your advice on Iran.’ This is very dangerous,” said Gilboa. “If this logic exists, it doesn’t make much sense.”
He also pointed to the timing, which he said is “always important.”
Israel’s shaky government coalition looks poised to pass a budget in November—the country’s first in over two years—and any political challenge before that could topple it.
“They would get [Benjamin] Netanyahu back, unless they want him to come back, and this does not seem to be the case,” he said.
Even after the approval of the budget, “it makes no difference” since it could still topple the government, according to Gilboa.
‘You move the ball into their court’
He also said he doesn’t believe recent news reports that Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid agreed to the consulate.
Gilboa recalled an incident between former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President George H.W. Bush when Bush claimed that Shamir committed to halting construction in Judea and Samaria. Shamir said he never made that kind of a concession.
“I believe him,” said Gilboa. “There is a history of American manipulation here. To say that Lapid agreed—and he is saying, ‘No, I did not agree’—I believe him and not the State Department because it doesn’t seem logical.”
Turning back to the consulate, Gilboa noted that most diplomatic delegations to the Palestinians are in Ramallah, not in Jerusalem.
The solution here, according to Gilboa, is for Israel not to say “no,” but to offer the Biden team an alternative. “The U.S. can open the consulate in Ramallah or in Abu Dis,” he said. “This way, you move the ball into their court.”
According to Gilboa, opening a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem would mean “some reduction in the status of the existing Jerusalem embassy. There is no state in the world where there is an embassy and a consulate in the same place,” he said.
He also noted the international understanding that countries do not open diplomatic representation without the complete endorsement of the host country. Israel opposes it, and yet, the Biden administration is allegedly fixated on forcing Israel to allow it.
“This is not how things work,” said Gilboa. “This is going to be a violation of diplomatic protocols. The American proposed action without Israeli consent is a total violation of all kinds of rules.”
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