December 20, 2021 | Washington Examiner

Stick to status quo on Jerusalem consulate

December 20, 2021 | Washington Examiner

Stick to status quo on Jerusalem consulate

“There is no room for another American Consulate in Jerusalem,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said last month . The problem is that’s exactly what Joe Biden promised during his presidential campaign. But it was a misguided promise destined to aggravate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The smart thing for Biden to do is absolutely nothing.

In theory, an American diplomatic mission to the Palestinians makes plenty of sense. It signals American commitment to a negotiated peace and helps to shore up the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, led by the aged and ailing President Mahmoud Abbas, whose popularity compares unfavorably to that of Hamas. A consulate would facilitate communication to the Palestinian government and Palestinian people, crucial not just as it relates to the conflict with Israel but a range of issues, from global jihad to vaccine transfers.

The practical solution to this problem is to open a new U.S. Consulate at the center of Palestinian life in the West Bank where commerce, civil society, and government reside: Ramallah. It would not be the only such mission. More than two dozen countries have diplomatic missions in Ramallah, including China, India, and several Arab states.

However, placing the U.S. mission in Ramallah would be wildly unpopular with the Palestinians and would cause problems for Biden domestically, as the far Left would perceive the decision as ceding Jerusalem to Israel in toto. As such, the Palestinians demand an American mission in East Jerusalem, the hoped-for capital of a future Palestinian state.

The history of the U.S. diplomatic presence in Jerusalem is convoluted, to say the least. After Israel’s independence in 1948, the United States placed its embassy in Tel Aviv, ignoring Israel’s determination that Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish state and the fact that Israel’s government, including parliament, presidents, and prime ministers, was all based in Jerusalem.

After Israel’s independence and until 1967, Washington maintained two consulates in Jerusalem: one in the western part of the city, which was under Israeli control, and one in the eastern part of city, which was then under Jordanian control. Despite the reunification of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, the U.S. maintained its policy of two consulates: a consulate in the western part of the city, on Agron Road, facing Israelis, and another facility in the east of the city, on Nablus Road, ostensibly to serve the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West bank — though in practice, both facilities service both populations at times.

In 2010, without fanfare, the Obama administration consolidated the Nablus Road mission into a Palestinian Affairs Unit in the newly expanded facility in western Jerusalem on Agron. The U.S. maintains the property on Nablus Road as an America House . Also in 2010, a new consular section was established in western Jerusalem, providing services for both populations.

While the U.S. engaged in real estate shuffles in Jerusalem, other countries, many of which recognized Palestinian statehood, opened embassies in Ramallah. This was largely a result of the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords established the PA in Ramallah and created areas of full and partial Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank (referred to as areas A, B, and C).

Ramallah, located in area A and fully governed by the PA, became the nerve center of Palestinian life. It is only logical that any U.S. representation to the Palestinians should reside there and not in Jerusalem, a city under full Israeli jurisdiction. Though geographically close, the Israeli capital is worlds apart from Ramallah and Palestinian life in the West Bank.

Opening a U.S. Consulate to the Palestinians in any part of Jerusalem is not only illogical but also runs contrary to U.S. law.

In 2018, President Donald Trump fulfilled his own campaign promise, finally enacting the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and, in the same move, tucking the existing Palestinian Affairs Unit under the authority of the new embassy. The Palestinians responded by boycotting the U.S. administration, a posture the PA maintained for the remainder of the Trump presidency.

Importantly, the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 stipulates that Jerusalem remain the “undivided” capital of Israel. This policy, spearheaded by Congress, has been reaffirmed repeatedly, with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Asking Israel to accept a new consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem would run contrary to the letter and spirit of the law.

Despite the deeply problematic and contentious nature of this issue, as recently as October, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Biden’s campaign promise to reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. However, Israel would have to sign off on a new diplomatic presence and, after waiting 70 years for a U.S. president to recognize Jerusalem and move the U.S. Embassy there, Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have both made it clear that the idea of a shared capital with the Palestinians is off the table.

There are no good moves available to the Biden administration. Upsetting America’s closest regional ally over the placement of a consulate that is both impractical and legally incoherent is a bad move. Placing the consulate in Ramallah would cause the president problems with the Palestinians and domestically. The only credible option for the administration is to maintain the status quo in Jerusalem and hope this blows over.

Shany Mor ( @ShMMor ) is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Enia Krivine ( @EKrivine ) is the senior director of the FDD’s Israel Program and National Security Network. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Israel Palestinian Politics