Israel must stand strong against reopening of US consulate - editorial

The budget passed on Friday, and on Saturday night Bennett and Lapid both emphasized that they are opposed to reopening the consulate.

A worker hangs a road sign directing to the U.S. embassy, in the area of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A worker hangs a road sign directing to the U.S. embassy, in the area of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had heretofore postponed a number of important political decisions, waiting until after the national budget was passed. This is understandable: every vote in the eclectic coalition was needed in order to get that budget through the Knesset, to avoid an automatic dispersal of the parliament and a return to another national election. But the morning after has come. The budget passed and decisions have to be made.

One of the sensitive issues on the agenda is President Joe Biden’s desire to reverse the action by his predecessor, Donald Trump, and reopen a US consulate-general in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians. Lapid reportedly asked the State Department to hold off until after the budget passed, to allow the government a chance to stabilize.

The budget passed on Friday, and on Saturday night Bennett and Lapid both emphasized that they are opposed to reopening the consulate, which was closed in 2019 following the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“My position, which has been presented to the Americans by myself and by Foreign Minister Lapid, is that there is no place for an American consulate that serves the Palestinians in Jerusalem,” Bennett told reporters. “We have expressed our position [to the US] determinedly, quietly, without drama, and I hope it will be understood. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel alone.”

Lapid stressed that the principle at stake is the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and not the issue of a consulate for the Palestinians, which he said the US was welcome to open in Ramallah. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who is looking for any wavering by the government to help weaken it) had also reportedly suggested that the US could open a consulate for the Palestinians in either Ramallah or Abu Dis, a neighborhood adjacent to Jerusalem, where the Palestinian parliament was once slated to stand.

 A man places a Palestinian flag on a fence surrounding the U.S. consulate during a rally in support of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' bid for statehood recognition in the United Nations, in Arab East Jerusalem September 21, 2011 (credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun) A man places a Palestinian flag on a fence surrounding the U.S. consulate during a rally in support of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' bid for statehood recognition in the United Nations, in Arab East Jerusalem September 21, 2011 (credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

The consulate had previously acted as a de facto embassy to the Palestinian Authority, even though it was placed in an area in western Jerusalem that has never been in dispute or under discussion as possibly coming under Palestinian control in any kind of diplomatic peace process.

Bennett downplayed the significance of Israeli opposition to American plans to reopen the consulate-general, saying: “There is so much more that we agree upon with our American friends than we disagree upon.” But the same might not be said concerning relations within his own government, including parties on the Left and the Right.

The consulate issue is being tied to another thorny question: construction over the Green Line. Here, too, the Biden administration is opposed to building plans, while some parties in the Bennett government want to proceed with major West Bank settlement projects.

There is a broad consensus within Israel that reopening the consulate in Jerusalem is not only unnecessary but harmful. A consulate in Jerusalem would in fact undermine the pursuit of peace by giving the Palestinians a false hope that one day they will have control over the city. Reopening the consulate, particularly now that the US Embassy is located in Jerusalem, would in effect bring Israel’s sovereignty in its own capital into question, and possibly encourage other countries to follow suit. Instead of opening embassies to Israel in Jerusalem, there could be a move to open consulates and trade representations for the Palestinians in the Israeli capital.

The Bennett-Lapid coalition is eager to repair ties with the Democrats after the Trump and Netanyahu eras, but both the prime minister and the alternate prime minister need to stand firm on Israel’s interest. Reopening the consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem does direct harm to Israel’s interests, and would not help a future peace process. To gain a consulate in western Jerusalem in return for nothing but intransigence will not encourage the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table in good faith.

Israel must continue to stand strong in its opposition to reopening the US consulate in Jerusalem. As for construction over the Green Line: it is time the government itself decides what it wants, where its red lines lie, rather than letting it be determined by outside forces.