Upgrading US-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem impacts status as Israel's capital - editorial

The issue is not about whether there should be a consulate to handle Palestinian affairs, but why a US Consulate for the Palestinians should be based in Jerusalem and not, for example, in Ramallah.

The US Embassy in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The US Embassy in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The US State Department made a significant diplomatic move last week when it upgraded its Jerusalem office to the Palestinians. The Palestinian Affairs Unit changed its name on Twitter to the “US Office of Palestinian Affairs in Jerusalem.” You might ask, “What’s in a name?” In this case, the answer is a lot.

An embassy spokesperson said, “The name change was done to better align with State Department nomenclature.” But this is not just a technical move.

The Palestinian Affairs Unit, which has just been upgraded to the Office for Palestinian Affairs (OPA), has operated within the US Embassy in Jerusalem since the embassy moved there from Tel Aviv in 2018 under the Trump administration.

The name change is not merely cosmetic. It is a sign of President Joe Biden’s desire to stick by his election promise and reopen a US Consulate in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians, reversing the action by his predecessor.

Both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have emphasized that they oppose reopening the consulate in Jerusalem that in effect functioned as an embassy to the Palestinians.

THE ISRAELI and the American flags are screened on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 14, 2019, to mark one year since the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (credit: AHARON KROHN/FLASH90)THE ISRAELI and the American flags are screened on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 14, 2019, to mark one year since the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (credit: AHARON KROHN/FLASH90)

Why Jerusalem?

Upgrading US relations with the Palestinians from the heart of Jerusalem has an impact on the status of the city as Israel’s capital. The issue is not about whether there should be a consulate to handle Palestinian affairs, which is a US decision, but why a US Consulate for the Palestinians should be based in Jerusalem and not, for example, in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s seat of government.

Israel has so far remained adamant about blocking the reopening of the US Consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. It would be unprecedented to have both the US Embassy to one country and the de facto embassy to a foreign entity operating from the same city.

It should also be noted that the US Embassy and the building that formerly housed the consulate are both in west Jerusalem in areas not under dispute and not considered up for negotiation in any future peace deal.

A US delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf is currently in the region, ahead of an expected visit by Biden. When Leaf met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Saturday, he reportedly asked that the consulate in Jerusalem be reopened along with the PLO’s office in Washington, which requires removing the PLO from the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.

Abbas is reportedly increasingly frustrated by the way Biden has not made good on his electoral pledge to reopen the consulate handling Palestinian affairs.

Biden has, however, rolled back other steps taken by Trump, such as restoring some $500 million in aid to the Palestinians cut by the previous administration.

Israel-Palestinian relations do not seem to be high on Biden’s priorities at the moment. His expected visit to the region has already been postponed once from this month to next and it is likely that both the fragile condition of the Israeli government and the frail health and plummeting hold of Abbas over the Palestinians are considerations that make the chance of jump-starting Palestinian-Israeli talks more distant. 

That is what makes moves like renaming and upgrading the Palestinian Affairs Office so important. These are steps on the ground that can be taken unilaterally by the US and, unlike opening a consulate in Jerusalem, do not require Israeli approval.

Reopening the consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem would not progress a future peace process. Indeed, upgrading ties with the Palestinians in return for nothing but intransigence does nothing to encourage the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table in good faith.

Israel must continue to make clear to the US that reopening the US Consulate in Jerusalem is a red line. This is a matter on which the broad spectrum of Israeli society agrees, regardless of who holds the political reins. 

The friendship and ties between Israel and the US are deep and longstanding, but even friends and allies sometimes need to clarify boundaries. Some things are not up for negotiation, including Jerusalem’s status as the capital of Israel.