by Prof. Eugene Kontorovich
The US Embassy in Jerusalem already provides consular services to the Palestinians. Why do they need an independent consulate in the same city?
The Biden administration is trying to partially undo one of Israel's greatest diplomatic achievements of recent decades – the recognition of Israel's sovereignty over all of Jerusalem by the US, followed by numerous other countries. The good news is unlike many diplomatic attacks, the Israeli government has the power to stop it.
The US is pushing to open up a new diplomatic office in Jerusalem – one that would be directed to the Palestinian Authority. The US Embassy in Jerusalem already provides consular services to the Palestinians. It is unheard of to have an independent consulate in the same city where a country has an embassy. The point of creating a separate consulate is to undermine former US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem. But under international law, the US would need Israel's permission for this move.
The US does not want to open a consulate merely to have a place for diplomatic liaisons with the PA. If that is all they wanted, they could easily do this by opening a mission in Abu Dis or Ramallah – where most other countries conduct their relations with the PA. Or they could reopen the Palestinian mission in Washington, DC, which Trump also closed. But by instead demanding that Israel accede to a consulate in Jerusalem, the administration is showing this is not just about having a convenient place for coffee with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Indeed, the purpose of opening the consulate is to recognize Palestinian claims to Jerusalem. If the PA has no legitimate claim to Jerusalem, there can be no reason to have a consulate there. To be sure, this is why opening the consulate is the main Israel-related policy demand of radically anti-Israel Rep. Ilhan Omar. Point of fact, former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro made clear before the last US election that opening a separate consulate to the Palestinians would be designed to signal US support for a Palestinian capital in that city.
It is true that the US had a consulate in Jerusalem since 1844, which was separate from the embassy. But that is because the US had not recognized Jerusalem as even being in Israel (and obviously that consulate was established without any relation to the Palestinians). When Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital and moved the embassy, he had to close the consulate because its separate existence was simply inconsistent with this recognition. Opening the consulate would turn the clock back to before the US recognition of Jerusalem. The Biden administration knows it does not have domestic support to completely unrecognize Jerusalem – so it is catering to far-left demands by undoing the natural consequences of recognition.
This would be a big deal: Since the creation of the state, no Israeli government of any political inclination has allowed the opening of a diplomatic mission not to Israel. This would be unprecedented. While there are a few European consulates in Jerusalem not accredited to Israel, these predate the creation of the state.
If Israel allows the opening of such a consulate, it is hard to imagine how any country in the future would be diplomatically capable of opening an embassy in Jerusalem without opening a parallel mission to the PA. This would then cement the notion that "both sides" have legitimate claims to the city.
Fortunately, the current government understands how fundamental an issue this is and has strongly rejected the US proposals. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has expressed his opposition even more firmly than then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did when the new administration first raised the issue. Netanyahu never had to withstand the significant ongoing pressure the US State Department continues to exert. Lapid has made it clear that he understands this is not about a diplomatic office; it is about the status of Jerusalem.
But the story is far from over, as the US has recently doubled down on its insistence. The real test of the government will be in action – in ensuring that no consulate opens even as Washington turns the diplomatic screws.
The US administration is attempting to intimidate Israel by describing the consulate as a "campaign promise" of Biden's – though it is hard to find any public statement on the issue during his election campaign. Israel's government must make it clear that sole Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem is not a "campaign promise" – it is a fundamental, obvious axiom.
The Americans are indicating they may just try to muscle the issue, declaring that they are opening the consulate and counting on Israel to go along. Israel needs to spell out now that it will not accept a fait accompli. A diplomatic mission needs many things from the host government, from diplomatic visas and license plates to security coordination. If Bennett and Lapid want to deter the US from attempting hardball tactics, they should declare now that the government will in no way recognize a new diplomatic mission opened without its consent.
Prof. Eugene Kontorovich