Is the US consulate in Jerusalem for Palestinians a real issue?

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Is everything OK between Jerusalem and Washington, or is a crisis on the way? The answer is complicated

 CRISIS OR business as usual? A view of the US Consulate General on Agron Street in Jerusalem. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
CRISIS OR business as usual? A view of the US Consulate General on Agron Street in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

It seems like every day there’s another headline about the impending showdown between the Biden administration and the Bennett government over the former’s intention to open a consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem.

“US will force a Palestinian consulate on Israel,” a recent one read. “US will open the consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem after budget vote next month,” was another.

But the way sources in the Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Ministry tell it, the accumulation of breathless headlines has sent them scrambling to find out where the information came from, because it is so different from what they’re hearing from Washington.

So, is everything OK between Jerusalem and Washington, or is a crisis on the way? The answer is complicated.

US President Joe Biden promised in his election campaign that he would reopen the consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. The first US consul to Jerusalem was appointed in 1844, long before the State of Israel or the later Palestinian state claims, and the Agron Road location dates back to 1912. The consulate-general was not accredited to any government. It operated until 2019, after previous president Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – a policy Biden has said he will not reverse – and the consulate was merged into the US Embassy in Israel, newly in Jerusalem.

US Embassy Jerusalem (credit: US EMBASSY IN JERUSALEM)US Embassy Jerusalem (credit: US EMBASSY IN JERUSALEM)

The structure in question, on Agron Street, is not only in Jerusalem, but on the western side of the city, which was part of Israel before 1967. Israel, under right-wing and left-wing governments, is not known to have raised objections to its operations; it was grandfathered in, existing since before the establishment of the state, and not worth a diplomatic spat with Israel’s greatest ally.

But now, in order to reopen the consulate to the Palestinians, Israel would have to give its approval – and this government does not plan to do so. Allowing consulates to a foreign entity in the middle of Israel’s capital would undermine sovereignty and the unity of Jerusalem, is the argument against it.

Asked about the consulate in The New York Times earlier this year, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said: “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It’s not the capital of other nations.”

In later briefings, he told journalists that he unequivocally opposes opening a consulate to the Palestinians, in case the remark to the Times wasn’t clear enough.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who would have to sign off on the consulate opening, also opposes it, though he doesn’t make a point of talking about it publicly. His aides generally make a more political argument, that it is a do-or-die issue for the right-wing parties in the unity government, and therefore cannot happen.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, the other signature required in order for Israel to approve the consulate, said at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference last week: “No way.... I want to make it very clear: We oppose it. We don’t oppose it now and have a different opinion after the budget. We are 100% opposed [to] that....

“Someone said it’s an electoral commitment [by Biden] – for us it is a generations commitment. Our commitment to Jerusalem is a generations commitment, and we will not compromise on this,” Sa’ar said, adding that Bennett agrees.

But hours later in Washington, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, as Lapid looked on, “We’ll be moving forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of deepening... ties with the Palestinians.”

Clearly, the sides don’t see eye to eye. Some kind of collision seems inevitable. The question is whether it will be managed quietly or a major flare-up.

Top Israeli diplomatic sources were emphatic that the issue has not adversely impacted the relationship with the Biden administration. Jerusalem made clear to Washington months ago that the consulate is a no-go, and while the sides disagree, the Biden administration is not putting pressure on Bennett and Lapid.

Washington has not brought up any alternative proposals for how to address the matter, and Jerusalem is not concerned that the Americans will violate the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations by going forward with opening a consulate without Israel’s approval.

Though the consulate is omnipresent in the headlines, the sources denied that it is a central issue that has come up between Bennett and Biden or Lapid and Blinken; rather, it is a more peripheral one that US officials brought up briefly, not dedicating much time to it in their meetings.

Blinken’s latest remark on the consulate, one source pointed out, was in response to a question from the media. He didn’t bring up the issue publicly on his own, which could be an indication of where it stands on the secretary of state’s list of priorities.

“The topic hasn’t been coming up,” another senior diplomatic source said.

Rather, the source pointed to Likud MK Nir Barkat, who has announced his intention to run for the party’s leadership after opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu retires, as a source of a lot of the tensions. Barkat, who never spoke out against the extant consulate in his 10 years as former mayor of Jerusalem, went to Washington twice this year to lobby Congress against reopening it.

“Barkat is trying to heat things up and is doing damage, and then Netanyahu picked up the shiny new toy,” tweeting against the consulate last week, the source said. “It’s okay to run a campaign based on foreign affairs issues, but don’t cause damage with it.”

Barkat responded that “the US government is working hard in recent months to open a Palestinian embassy in Jerusalem. It is unfortunate that Prime Minister Bennett is trying to hide from the Israeli public the Americans’ intention to open a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem, for the first time since the establishment of the state... giving a precedent by which dozens of Palestinian consulates will be opened in the heart of Israel’s capital. Burying your head in the sand is not a solution, and the prime minister of Israel is expected to defend the capital of Israel.” 

And the Palestinians, of course, bring up the topic often. One American diplomatic source said earlier this year that the consulate is the Palestinian Authority’s No. 1 ask from Washington.

Multiple sources flat out denied the report in Axios this week that there is going to be a task force led by Blinken and Lapid to work out the issue. The top diplomats agreed to further discuss the matter, but didn’t discuss any official structure or time frame to talk.

Of course, there is the fact that the budget vote is on November 4, and the pervasive view seems to be that some of the more contentious issues domestically and internationally – like the consulate – are lying in wait until after that date.

There is disagreement within the ranks of the Bennett-Lapid government about the significance of the budget vote to the consulate issue, though it must be said that no one said there will be a change in policy next month.

A minister who has spoken with American officials recently quipped that they all seem to have become experts on the Israeli budget.

One senior source said “the budget time frame is a general thing we say to everyone about everything.”

But another source said “the budget thing is fake news. The Americans told us it’s not their talking point. It’s spin, maybe from Barkat.”

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel was in Washington this week, where he met senior American officials dealing with the Middle East and national security, in addition to communications, and his remarks seem to sum up where the situation stands. He brings up the situation, not the Americans, but they have the impression that something might change next month.

“I raise the Israeli approach on the consulate everywhere,” Hendel said on Thursday. “I try to explain it’s not just about the budget; it’s a matter of principle. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. I’m not familiar with other examples of consulates and embassies in the same capital.”

Still, he made sure to add: “I’m sure our deep friendship will allow for the [consulate proposal] not to come to fruition.”

Asked if the Americans are insisting that the consulate was Biden’s campaign promise, Hendel seemed to have the key for how Jerusalem and Washington can live with disagreeing.

“We had other examples of strong promises from the past. I would like to remind you that for many years, many administrations promised before elections that they would transfer the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and they postponed it every time,” he said.

For 23 years, Israel lived with the US not enacting the Jerusalem Embassy Act, not keeping its promise to an ally. Now, the Bennett-Lapid government hopes, the Palestinians will just have to live with the same.