My Word: The cons of reopening the US consulate

A US office offering consular services in Ramallah would be far more accessible for the Palestinians living in Palestinian Authority territories.

People rally against the possible reopening of the US consulate outside the building in central Jerusalem last month. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
People rally against the possible reopening of the US consulate outside the building in central Jerusalem last month.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Talk about a moving experience. When the US Embassy relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, the festivities were full-blown. Everything from the motorbike cavalcades to the over-the-top speeches celebrated a new era, too long in coming.

The US “Jerusalem Embassy Act,” requiring the embassy to move to Jerusalem – the Israeli capital – was enacted in 1995, but successive presidents signed a waiver every six months postponing its implementation. President Barack Obama’s administration was loath to even pair the words “Jerusalem, Israel” together. 

And then came Donald Trump. In his undiplomatic, unconventional style, he refused to push off the move any longer, and the US Embassy sign went up in what had previously been the consulate building in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood. One of the consulates, that is. 

In a peculiar situation, even by Israel’s standards, there was also a US consulate in a beautiful stone building on Agron Street in central Jerusalem. 

How many consulates does one country need in one city? This was not a case of the more the merrier. Following the Oslo Accords, the consulate on Agron Street served mainly the Palestinians. Not only were there two consulates, but they were aimed at two different populations. Even July 4 celebrations were held separately: One for Jews and one for Arabs. 

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

As Likud MK and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat frequently points out, the US consulate on Agron Street served, in effect, as a de facto embassy for the Palestinian Authority. 

Trump consolidated all the diplomatic and consular services in the newly inaugurated embassy in 2019 and created a Palestinian Affairs Unit for liaison with the Palestinians. 

Jerusalem being Jerusalem, the history of the US consulate is complicated and goes back a long way. OK, not so long for a city that King David made his capital more than 3,000 years ago, but back to 1844. That year, the US opened a consulate in the Old City, moving it outside the Old City walls in 1912, to what was to become Agron Street. At the time, Jerusalem was still under Ottoman rule. Britain ousted the Ottomans in 1917, and Israel gained independence in 1948. (Independence meaning it had the right to determine its own capital, at least that’s what’s accepted for every country other than the Jewish state.) 

The Old City and what is commonly known as “east Jerusalem” came under Jordanian control during the War of Independence in 1948 and was reunited with the rest of the city 19 years later when Jordan and the Arab world failed to destroy Israel in the Six Day War. There was at no stage a Palestinian state and Jerusalem was never the capital of any country other than Israel.

There was never a question over the Agron Street address (unless you question Israel’s right to exist altogether.) The street, incidentally, is named for late Jerusalem mayor Gershon Agron, who had previously founded this paper as The Palestine Post, in the days when Jews were considered Palestinians and Palestinians self-identified as Arabs. There’s room for confusion, but no room for one country to maintain two diplomatic missions in the same city.

Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the soul of the Jewish people. It’s the city that houses the parliament, Supreme Court, Prime Minister’s Residence and President’s Residence.

The Palestinian Authority parliament and main offices, on the other hand, are located in Ramallah.

A US office offering consular services in Ramallah would be far more accessible for the Palestinians living in Palestinian Authority territories, and would also offer them a greater measure of US recognition. (Although ensuring the security of US personnel in Palestinian-controlled areas would be definitely more challenging.)

US President Joe Biden reportedly made an election promise to reopen the consulate-general on Agron Street and is now eager to make good on that pledge. There are reports that a former US consulate on Nablus Road that was merged with the Arnona complex in 2010 might be thrown in for good, or bad, measure.

There was an unspoken understanding that the US wouldn’t press the issue until after the eclectic government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid had passed the budget, a vote in which every coalition MK was needed to prevent the automatic dispersal of the Knesset. 

But it is now the morning after. And the government has a diplomatic headache.

It’s not by chance that the budget passed in the early hours of last Friday and on Saturday night, both Bennett and Lapid emphasized that they are opposed to reopening the consulate. 

“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 declared at a press conference. “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel alone.”

Bennett and Lapid are eager to repair ties with the Democrats after the Trump and Netanyahu eras – and Biden seems intent on erasing any trace of the previous resident of the White House – but both the prime minister and the alternate prime minister are aware of how the land lies. 

Israelis are divided on many issues. The division of Jerusalem isn’t one of them. There is a broad consensus that reopening the US consulate in Jerusalem would not be good, for anyone. Since the US Embassy is now located in Jerusalem, the unprecedented opening of a consulate in the same city would bring Israel’s sovereignty in its own capital into question. Instead of more countries 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 one thing it wouldn’t do is further a future diplomatic process, as Biden might naively hope. If the Palestinians gain a consulate in central Jerusalem in return for nothing but intransigence they will have no incentive to return to the negotiating table in good faith. On the contrary. 

The Abraham Accords showed that peace between Israel and Arab countries can be achieved for mutual benefit. But in the wake of Biden’s sudden pullout from Afghanistan and the swift Taliban takeover, US allies and enemies alike are closely monitoring how America intends to treat its friends in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Under the Vienna Convention of 1963, to which both Israel and the US are signatories, a consulate cannot be opened without the agreement of the host state. A unilateral reopening of the consulate would contradict the convention, custom and commonsense. 

A consulate-general is a symbol. To insist on reopening a US consulate for the Palestinians in “western Jerusalem” – in an area that has never been disputed or under discussion as possibly coming under Palestinian control in some kind of diplomatic peace process – raises the question “What would be the mission’s mission?” The move would not only rewrite the Jerusalem Embassy Act and the Vienna Convention, it would rewrite history.

Jerusalem is Judaism’s holiest city and subject of prayers, dreams and psalms since before the times when King David made it his capital. Jews all over the world face Jerusalem when they pray. Muslims and Christians also contribute to its vitality and special nature. Walk downtown, go to government offices, hospitals, places of entertainment – people from all three faiths will be walking and working alongside you. Opening the consulate would open a Pandora’s box that would harm the nature of a united Jerusalem. 

It’s not diplomatic but it needs to be said: There are no pros in having the US consulate in Jerusalem. Only cons. Whoever would sit there, it wouldn’t be an ambassador of goodwill.

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