US, Israel play chicken over Jerusalem consulate for Palestinians

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: To swerve is to avoid disaster, but it is also to back down – and to back down carries consequences.

THE US CONSULATE General on Agron Street in Jerusalem – eye of a storm. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
THE US CONSULATE General on Agron Street in Jerusalem – eye of a storm.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Like drivers of two cars hurtling toward each other on an open road in a deadly game of “chicken,” Israel and the US are racing toward a collision over the opening of a US consulate in Jerusalem unless one of the drivers swerves at the last minute to avert a crash.

To swerve is to avoid disaster, but it is also to back down – and to back down carries consequences.

For Israel, swerving would mean infringement on its sovereignty over Jerusalem; for the US administration, it would mean backpedaling on an explicit, oft-repeated campaign promise made by President Joe Biden, and reaffirmed several times since by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The issue is coming to a head now because Israel finally passed a budget a week ago. Until that happened, and the narrow Bennett-Lapid coalition was able to place itself on a more stable political footing, the Americans let it be known they would not force the consulate issue, so as not to upset the coalition dynamics and possibly bring down the government – Yamina and New Hope have come out fervently against the move.

Now, however, the budget has been passed, and so the question is whether the Americas intend on implementing Biden’s campaign pledge, and if so, how will Israel respond.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Knesset about the budget. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Knesset about the budget. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

AT THEIR post-budget victory-lap press conference Saturday night, both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made clear their unequivocal opposition to the consulate move.

“I presented my position to the Americans, as did Foreign Minister Yair Lapid,” Bennett said. “There is no room for an American consulate in Jerusalem that serves the Palestinian population. We are consistently expressing our opinion, without drama, and I hope that it will be understood. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel alone.”

Lapid was no less clear: “We are opposed to opening a consulate in Jerusalem. There is an embassy in Jerusalem. The sovereignty in Jerusalem belongs to one country – Israel.”

Lapid clarified that this was never an issue about political stability or the budget, but, rather, “always about the principled objection of Israel” to opening a consulate in its capital city.

“There is an American Embassy, and if – by the way – they want to open a consulate in Ramallah, we have no problem with that.”

All of the above represents the Israeli car hurtling down that open road.

And here is America’s speeding car: “We’ll be moving forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of deepening... ties with the Palestinians,” Blinken said less than a month ago at a press conference in Washington with Lapid and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Only eight days ago State Department spokesman Ned Price reiterated that Blinken has been clear about America’s intentions, though he added that he did not have a timeline to offer at the moment.

FORMER US AMBASSADOR David Friedman, under whose watch the US Embassy was moved to Jerusalem and consequently the consulate in the city was closed and its operations folded into the embassy, said that on this issue Israel cannot afford to swerve.

“Israel has far more to lose by agreeing to this than the US has to gain by insisting upon it,” he said. “I think that the Biden administration has a lot to lose by really creating a major rift with Israel. I think it’s very unpopular. I also think it could bring down the government [in Israel], which I think is a significant concern for the Biden administration right now.”

The US consulate in Jerusalem was opened in 1844 by Christian Zionists who believed the Second Coming would be hastened by helping Jews return to Jerusalem. It remained in the city after 1948, as the US opened its embassy in Tel Aviv, since it did not recognize Jerusalem as the country’s capital.

Friedman said that from 1948 until the Oslo Accords in the ’90s, the consulate largely filled consular needs and served as a building where visiting US officials – such as secretaries of state – could hold meetings and receive secure communications during their frequent visits to Jerusalem.

Following Oslo, however, the consulate took on a life of its own, and it became the unofficial US mission to the Palestinians. The consulate was responsible for east Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, and the consul-general answered not to the ambassador, who was appointed by the president, but directly to the State Department.

Friedman said that while nobody in the current Israeli government wants to “insult” the US by denying it the right to open a consulate wherever it wants – something that would necessitate Israeli government approval – “I don’t think any Israeli politician could ever be seen as dividing Jerusalem or compromising Jerusalem. I don’t think that anyone even on the Left could ever do that.”

And, Friedman added, “dividing Jerusalem” is exactly the message the reopening of the consulate would send. “It would be saying that there are people out there, the Palestinians, who hope to have a state one day, and when they do, they’re going to have a capital in Jerusalem, just like Israel does. This is much more than just symbolic.”

Friedman said that the Palestinians are well aware of this, which is why they are much more insistent on the US reopening the consulate in Jerusalem than they are on Washington reopening the PLO mission in the US capital, which – like the consulate – was also closed during the Trump administration.

“This sends an absolute crystal clear message that the United States favors a division of Jerusalem into an Israeli capital and a Palestinian capital,” Friedman said. “It’s undeniable, and that’s the way [Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Mohammad Shtayyeh has already said he interprets it.”

Shtayyeh, in a September Facebook post, wrote: “We want the American Consulate to constitute the seed of a US Embassy in the State of Palestine.”

As to how important it is for Israel not to swerve on this issue, Friedman borrowed from a concept in Jewish law regarding when it is permissible to be killed rather than transgress a prohibition (yehareg ve’al ya’avor). “On this one, it is yehareg, ve’al ya’avor,” he said metaphorically.

ANOTHER FORMER US ambassador, Dan Kurtzer, takes a diametrically opposing view. Kurtzer served here from 2001 to 2005.

“If the United States, Israel’s best and in most cases only friend, wants this thing, and the Israelis are making a cabinet crisis over this... come on!” Kurtzer said, adding that in his view Israel’s opposition is “inexplicable.”

“I think the American government is going to expect that if the United States wants to open up a consulate in Jerusalem that Israel will grant it privileges and immunities. I think that’s an expectation from an ally and a partner and a friend.”

In other words, in this game of diplomatic chicken, Kurtzer does not think that the US should swerve.

Reopening the consulate, Kurtzer said, is not tantamount to dividing the city; it is only tantamount to reopening the consulate.

“It doesn’t signal that we support anything other than opening up a consulate to deal with the Palestinians,” said Kurtzer, now a professor of Middle East policy at Princeton University.

“Israel agreed that Jerusalem is a subject for negotiations. Israel has agreed to that,” Kurtzer said, referring to the Madrid and Oslo negotiations, negotiations at Camp David in 2000 and follow-up talks at Taba, and discussions between former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas.

“This is not the end of the world,” he said. “This is not falling off a cliff. This is not the United States cutting off aid. This is the United States saying we want to open up an office to service our diplomats who deal with the Palestinians.”

Kurtzer rebuffed the argument that the US does not have another consulate in the world in the same city where it has an embassy, nor does it have any consulates anywhere but in sovereign states, nor does it have consulates to serve a “people.” For example, as Friedman pointed out, there is no US consulate to the Kurds, to the Tibetans, or to the Dali Lama.

But, retorts Kurtzer, “There is no other conflict in the world that has the same dynamics as this one. Every conflict has its own dynamics.

“The United States has been a major player in an effort where Israel has wanted us to be a major player – trying to figure out how to get an outcome, presumably a two-state outcome, because that’s still the policy of the American government.

“Given the fact that we’ve invested as much time and effort and political capital in this as we have, why anybody is surprised that we’re focused on an institutional channel to the Palestinians is just beyond comprehension.”

As to Lapid’s suggestion that the Americans open the consulate in Ramallah – something the Palestinians would also have to agree to, and surely would not – Kurtzer said: “The administration has said they want to open it up in Jerusalem, as we’ve had for last 100-plus years. You know, you can open up five consulates all over, but they want to reopen in Jerusalem to deal with the Palestinians. So, thank you Israel for your advice and your input, but the American government can also make its decision in this regard.”

ACCORDING TO Eytan Gilboa, a Bar-Ilan University professor specializing in US-Israel relations, Biden’s promise to reopen the consulate stemmed from a desire to undo everything that Trump did, and from politics within the US Democratic Party.

“Biden said he would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv, but by opening the consulate in west Jerusalem he is doing just that,” Gilboa asserted. “He is trying to undo the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem.”

Regarding US domestic politics, Gilboa said that reopening the consulate is something that the progressives inside the party – whom Biden cannot ignore – want, and which they are pushing for.

While Friedman concurs with this assessment – saying that Biden has always been “very concerned about the progressives” getting too far to the Left of him and believing this issue is important for them – Kurtzer completely disagrees, though he does agree the move has to do with undoing what Trump did.

“This has zero to do with the progressives,” he said. “Zero. This is part of what Biden would call the foreign policy part of ‘building back better,’ of undoing the damage to American policy and diplomacy that was created in the last administration. And the last administration created damage for American diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.”

As to how the issue will play out, the most likely scenario is that the drivers of both cars in this diplomatic game of “chicken” hit the brakes and postpone the expected moment of impact – a collision neither side wants.

Axios reported last month that the US and Israel agreed to form a joint team to hold discreet negotiations on the matter. In other words, send it to committee, a time-honored delay tactic.

Gilboa said that since Biden will face a storm of opposition from Republicans – and perhaps from a few pro-Israel Democrats – if he opens the consulate, but also face the anger of progressives if he does not, his best option would be to say “I am still committed, but we will have to find the right time.”

Friedman said that he believes the two sides “will sit around and try to find some other face-saving substitute. Not that I have any idea what that would be. But I think they’ll try to work through something.”

And Kurtzer said that were he advising the president, he would tell him to go through with it. “I would have advised him to open up in February – just to do it. If he didn’t do it in February, I’d advise him to do it in November.”

As to the possibility that this could jeopardize Israel’s fragile government, Kurtzer said, “The administration was deferential to the government in terms of not doing this before the budget, but no government can defer its own policy requirements to the internal needs of another country. Israel doesn’t do it vis-a-vis the United States. If you feel you have to do something, you do it.”

If the administration does go ahead with the move, in all likelihood the next Republican president, at least in Friedman’s telling, would reverse it.

“I don’t know when there will be another Republican president, whether it’s going to be in three years or beyond that,” he said. “But based on basically everybody I know who has any chance of becoming president, if the consulate was reopened, it is a decision that would be reversed within a week of whenever they would take office.”•