This week’s Jerusalem Post 10th annual conference was a memorable gathering that made headlines. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke, as did President Isaac Herzog, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and Yossi Cohen, former head of the Mossad, in what was his first public appearance since stepping down a few months ago.
Most of the resulting headlines had to do with Iran – how Israel might one day need to attack its nuclear facilities – and, of course, Israeli politics. There was the off-hand comment by Bennett about limiting haredi (ultra-Orthodox) influence in government that drew the ire of haredim, and Cohen’s claim that Iran is still a while away from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
The headline that did not get enough attention, but could turn out to be the most important of all, was provided by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. In our on-stage interview, I asked him about US plans to open a consulate in Jerusalem dedicated to Palestinian affairs, a move that requires Israeli government approval.
“I spoke with [Prime Minister Naftali Bennett] a couple of times on the issue,” said Sa'ar. “We are on the same page, we don’t see differently. Someone said it’s an electoral commitment [for President Joe Biden]. But for us, it’s a generation’s commitment. We will not compromise on this.”
What Sa’ar said should not be dismissed as mere political saber-rattling. The American intention to open a consulate in Jerusalem for the Palestinians is shaking the foundations of the current Israeli coalition. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid brought that message with him to the United States this week, as did Bennett in August when he met with Biden at the White House.
Both explained that the American insistence to open the consulate will likely seal the fate of the government and bring it to an end. Coalition members like Ayelet Shaked have already warned their colleagues that if a consulate opens in Jerusalem, they will leave the coalition.
“This will bring down the government,” one top minister told me this week, “and we have explained that to the Americans.”
But the Americans are refusing to budge. Biden seems determined to press ahead with the consulate, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated this commitment on Wednesday when he said that the US plans on “moving forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of deepening of those ties with the Palestinians.”
For now, Israel has a promise from the US not to do anything before the state budget passes in mid-November. What will happen after the budget passes is unclear. The Americans say they will move ahead with the move, and Israel says it will not allow it. Which will it be?
So far, Bennett and Lapid have been publicly quiet. While Sa’ar said that Bennett is against opening the consulate, it makes sense that he does not want to make that opposition public, and is instead trying to find a way to torpedo the initiative behind the scenes. Lapid is also working hard on it.
Israeli officials have been trying for weeks to come up with different creative ways to convince the Americans that the consulate is bad idea.
In his meeting with Biden in August, Bennett offered a number of reasons, including his fear that other countries would follow suit and also open a consulate in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians (technically, it is unheard of that a country would have an embassy in the same city that it opens a consulate for another entity).
Lapid has played up the danger to the coalition, and that if this government falls, it is possible that Benjamin Netanyahu, current head of the Opposition, would return to power.
While those excuses all sound nice, they are technical, and as we all know, technical problems usually have technical solutions. When it comes to other countries following suit for example, the Americans could promise to stop other countries from doing the same. As for the possibility that the government would fall, the Americans could say that it is a risk worth taking.
But the opening of a consulate in Jerusalem is a far greater problem than just the technical difficulties it will create. Other countries might follow suit, and it also might weaken the coalition, but the bigger problem is that it will undermine a historical truth: Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people since King David moved there and so declared it.
Instead, the opening of a consulate will offer a false narrative that will make the Palestinians even more intransigent in future peace talks with Israel.
The Biden administration might think that it is “deepening ties with the Palestinians,” but what it will really do is give them a false hope that one day they will receive Jerusalem.
This will not happen.
Not only does a consulate in Jerusalem serve a lie, it also undermines advancing the chance for peace. Such a move will only push it farther away.
American and European governments have for decades supported and backed the Palestinian claims to Jerusalem – as well as the “Right of Return” – instilling within the Ramallah leadership a false hope that all of this is possible to achieve. But instead of getting peace, that policy has always led to obstinate intransigence and a diplomatic impasse.
Peace talks have failed because the Palestinians always say no. Yasser Arafat said no at Camp David, and Mahmoud Abbas has said no ever since: in 2008 when he held talks with Ehud Olmert, in 2014 when he held talks with Netanyahu, and in 2019 when he said no to the Trump peace plan. It is always the same answer. Always no.
How does it change? Definitely not by providing the Palestinians with dreams that one day Jerusalem will again be divided, or by letting them believe that they can achieve the goal of declaring a piece of Jerusalem their capital without having to make a single concession of their own.
This is the true danger of what the Americans are planning. Opening a consulate doesn’t deepen ties with the Palestinians, as Blinken said. It only deepens the conflict, ensuring that it will continue longer than it has to.
I write this as someone who believes in the two-state solution, and that disengaging from the Palestinians is the moral and strategic imperative needed for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state.
But this won’t work.
Instead, the administration should show the Palestinians and the Israelis that there are some facts that are accepted.
One is that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.
Want to open a consulate? Do it in Ramallah or Abu Dis. That would allow a more realistic approach, minimizing the conflict by ensuring that the most intractable issue – the status of Jerusalem – remains off the table.
Instead of going ahead with the consulate, Biden should use it as leverage to get Bennett to agree to talk with Abbas. Biden can tell the prime minister that if he doesn’t want a consulate in Jerusalem, he will have to give something in return – and renewal of diplomatic dialogue with the PA is the price.
That would have the potential to achieve real progress for both peoples, with real hope for a better future. Not a false dream.