by Nadav Shragai
The White House is threatening to unilaterally impose the opening of a US consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem, regardless of Israel's fierce opposition to the move, as well allowing a PLO office to again operate in Washington. But the implications could cause a perilous domino effect.
|The US Consulate Palestinian in Jerusalem | File photo: Oren Ben Hakoon|
The pessimistic scenario that Israeli diplomats have been describing with regard to the opening of an American consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem could materialize in the coming weeks after the Knesset approves the state budget. Thomas R. Nides, the United States' designated ambassador to Israel, who will be replacing David Friedman, is expected at the Shraga famous building on Agron Road, which is currently the official residence of the US ambassador in Israel.
The building housed the US consulate in Jerusalem until about two years ago when it was closed by President Donald Trump; it functioned for many years as the American representative office to east Jerusalem and the territories of the Palestinian Authority and Gaza and was subject to the auspices of the US State Department and not to the embassy in Tel Aviv.
According to the instructions received from his masters in Washington, Nides, despite Israeli opposition, will take unilateral measures. He will restore the sign on the consulate and will separate anew the operations of the embassy that Trump transferred from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the operations of the consulate, which will deal with Palestinian affairs. Thus, de facto, two separate American diplomatic entities will operate from Israel's capital: One, an embassy that will deal with Israeli affairs within the Green Line, and a second, the consulate that will act de facto as an embassy, and will deal with Palestinian affairs in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as the settlers in Judea and Samaria.
The professional echelon at the Foreign Ministry has described the expected American measures as an "introduction to the division of Jerusalem." They stress that the effect of such a measure, which is backed by President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken, will be to undermine, if not to completely withdraw from the measures taken by President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.
This is also how these measures are understood by the Palestinians. The Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said a few days ago (in quotes report by Palestinian Media Watch "the message of the new American administration is that Jerusalem is not a united Israeli city, and that the American administration does not recognize the annexation of Arab Jerusalem by the Israeli side. We would like the American consulate to lay the foundation for a future American embassy in a Palestinian state." Shtayyeh added, "The American measure distances the United States from the view that Jerusalem is one city, a view that was at the foundation of the decision to transfer the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem."
The battle against the upcoming steps – the Americans are not in any way hiding their intention to carry them out – will soon come up against a further two American decisions aimed at completing the consulate move. The first is that the United States wishes to reopen not only the consulate on Agron Road, but also its east Jerusalem branch, which operated until 2010 on Nablus Road, (and later moved to Arnona). The conversation with the Palestinians over this possibility has already begun.
The east Jerusalem branch of the consulate for many years helped establish the institutions of power and security mechanisms of the Palestinian Authority and supplied the administration in Washington with incriminating figures about Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria and in the Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem so they could operate against it.
The second measure that could materialize in the future is the reopening of the PLO representative office in Washington. A group of Democratic congressmen from the progressive branch of the party is preparing the ground for this to happen. The representative office was closed during President Trump's term, but the Biden administration is leaning toward reopening it. This will happen when and if legislation being led by Michigan congressman Andy Levin passes through the US House of Representatives.
As reported in Israel Hayom by Caroline Glick, Levin wishes to amend the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987 in a manner that will enable the reopening of the PLO representative office in Washington. In that historic law, the United States designated the PLO as a terrorist organization and prohibited it from opening any offices on its territory or from receiving American funding as long as the organization and its members fail to cease engagement in terrorism.
The possibility of unilateral measures from Washington on the matter of the American consulate in Jerusalem is causing great embarrassment among the Israeli leadership. In particular, after the Americans understood from Foreign Minister Yair Lapid that this is a question of timing and not one of substance as revealed by Ariel Kahana in Israel Hayom. The Americans therefore agreed to postpone the opening of the consulate until after passing of the state budget in the Knesset in order to enable the government to stabilize politically.
Lapid's position assuming that this indeed is how he presented it, as the Americans claim, (Lapid denies this) is not acceptable to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The Prime Minister's confidantes told Israel Hayom that he "is opposed to the opening of a consulate in Jerusalem at any time. He sees this as a move that could bring back through the front door the 'old American policy' that seeks to divide Jerusalem and to establish a Palestinian capital in the east of the city for a future Palestinian state."
The talk by the Prime Minister's confidantes of 'old policy' requires explanation: For decades, American presidential candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties promised to transfer the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem - but when they were finally elected, they refrained from doing so. The Jerusalem Embassy Act passed by Congress in 1995 required successive administrations to transfer the US embassy to Israel's capital, but successive US presidents signed yearly waivers that temporarily postponed this. The Obama and Bush administrations and their predecessors often removed from official photos the caption "Jerusalem, Israel" and instead just left the caption as "Jerusalem". The State Department even refused to register in the passports of US citizens born in the capital that their place of birth was "Jerusalem, Israel."
A reward for nothing
Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Dr. Michael Oren recalled this week how he was once summoned to the State Department and rebuked for the demolition of an outdoor toilet in east Jerusalem. "The demolition was authorized by the Israeli courts," and that event "like other humiliating incidents" was "germinated at the American consulate in Jerusalem."
Oren relates how he spoke about this matter with the heads of Jewish organizations: "I showed them the consulate's website. Everything on it was a Palestinian narrative, just in Arabic and English. From that website, you would not know that there was a single Jew in Jerusalem. I told them; this is antisemitic. Do something about it. They weren't willing to go up against the State Department. The consulate made sure to avoid even an appearance of American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and in embittered the lives of successive governments here every time they built a new neighborhood for Jews in Jerusalem, and every time they tried to enforce planning and building laws in east Jerusalem."
Donald Trump, as we all know, changed this reality, but the Biden administration, from its very first days, has tried to turn the wheel back. In January, almost immediately after the Biden administration moved in, the title of the US ambassador in Israel was changed on the embassy's Twitter page from "US Ambassador to Israel" to "US Ambassador to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza."
Public criticism led to a rapid turnabout and a return to the old title, but the trend was clear for all to see.
Former Foreign Ministry Director-General Dr. Dore Gold, who currently is the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, believes that Israel should put things on the table and clarify to the United States very openly, what it can do and what it is not capable of doing and what it is not licensed to do. "If we are very clear about our real maneuvering space, the Americans will respect that," he states. Gold, who is well known for his cautious phrasing does not mince his words this time around and defines the administration's intention to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem as "scandalous". "Israel cannot come to terms with threats to its sovereignty in Jerusalem," he says.
Q: Is it possible to prevent the Americans from going ahead if they plan to act unilaterally, as has already been hinted?
"Perhaps not, but then we will have to hold in-depth discussions regarding the possibility of an Israeli response; for example, the expansion of Jerusalem's boundaries. There are other ideas, I don't want to expand on them here. But, of course, we certainly can't put won't be able to leave such measures without a response."
Q: The United States claims that the consulate existed for decades without Israel making any request for it to be closed.
"We judge the existing reality. The Palestinian Authority didn't exist for decades, and now it does. For 19 years, Jerusalem was divided with fences and a border, but for 54 years, it has been an undivided city. Things change. If they had opened a consulate in Ramallah, I wouldn't have been enthusiastic, but I would have understood it. If they had opened a consulate after the Palestinian authorities stopped paying salaries to the families of terrorists, I still wouldn't have accepted a consulate in Jerusalem, but I would have understood the demand. But the Palestinians haven't changed their behavior and they are receiving a reward."
Q: Is the opening of an American consulate for the Palestinians in the capital a move that annuls American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital?
"It could lead there or it could pave the way. One has to remember that there is the Vienna Convention of 1963 which both Israel and the United States are signatories to, and according to which the agreement of the host state is required to open a consulate. To do so unilaterally without Israel's agreement would be breaking the rules."
Q: Perhaps the fight against the consulate, which at the end of the day is a symbol, is the wrong battle? Perhaps it would be better to focus on construction in Atarot, Har Homa, Givat Hamatos, and E1, which could shape the boundaries of the city for generations to come?
"There is no contradiction between the two. I in any event don't see the United States today allowing a policy that recognizes Israel's rights to build on territories that were part of Jordan before 1967. Coordination with the United States is something that is vital and important, but the story of the consulate is critical, and there is no room for compromise on this issue. It is something that is at the very soul of the state. We cannot compromise on our rights in all of Jerusalem."
Gold notes that he explained these rights in 2017 in great detail to the US House of Representatives. "Our friends there understood it," he says, "the formal reality now is still such that from the perspective of the United States, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The United States has not withdrawn recognition of this. In this reality, we must be tenacious and manage this battle with the US with prudence and sensitivity. But most of all, with tenacity and faith.
Gold clarifies that he himself does not differentiate between the east and the west of the city. "There is one Jerusalem, but the opening of the consulate on Agron Road in the west of the city will not only undermine Israeli sovereignty in the capital, it will also result in a grave withdrawal from the status Israel achieved in West Jerusalem prior to 1967.
Compromise and creative solutions
Oren is also convinced that if the administration takes unilateral steps and reopens the consulate unilaterally, Israel will have to fight the move. "Theoretically, one could stop providing electricity and water to the building. And it is possible to do other things that we shouldn't talk about right now," he says. "One has to take into account that there will be a price to pay; perhaps condemnations and perhaps sanctions. Therefore, we have to weigh carefully whether we can bear those costs. It is a strategic question, but, if, God forbid, the Americans decide to break all the rules, the battle at one level or the other will have to continue."
Oren hints at creative solutions that are being spoken about behind the scenes but refrains from providing any details. However, some of the proposals have been revealed to Israel Hayom: A consulate in Abu Dis ( the Americans reject the idea); definition of the role of the consulate as a diplomatic entity that will deal only with cultural and visa issues (Israel doesn't believe that the Americans will stick to their obligation on this); an American declaration that the opening of the consulate does not reflect any change in the administration's stand on recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Israeli sovereignty over the city (the chances that the administration in Washington will agree to this are low); increasing budgets for the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA in exchange for postponing the opening of the consulate (the Palestinians are opposed to this).
Nevertheless, Oren clarifies that "we have to stand up for our interests. I can see crawl toward that old antisemitic policy whereby the ambassador in Washington is summoned for every demolition of illegal construction in east Jerusalem and is summoned for every brick that is laid in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. It is a matter of sovereignty and national honor. This is our capital. We must set boundaries, even when we are talking about our greatest friend. This is the moment where I would expect from our government to do so clearly, firmly and respectfully."
The campaign against the opening of the consulate has been headed for several months by former Jerusalem mayor Likud MK Nir Barkat, who says he is in possession of polls that show "a huge majority among the Jewish public that is against the moves planned by the United States… Even Most Yesh Atid supporters are against this."
"When the State of Israel was established," he notes, "it inherited the consulates that operated in Mandatory Palestine prior to the establishment of the state. It allowed it to continue to operate, but it also made sure not to the opening of a new consulate in Jerusalem.
"Having two diplomatic delegations in one city means the division of Jerusalem. There is no other possible meaning. It is a finger in Israel's eye. If the Americans take such a unilateral measure, it will not only be a violation of the Vienna Convention, but also an American message that the great United States is not capable of respecting its most loyal partners. It is liable to have a very strong effect on relations with the Americans.
"I will not go into detail what kind of possibilities exists regarding responses. If the Americans do go ahead with unilateral measures," says Barkat. "In my opinion, we must not go there." He expresses the hope that both the "opposition and coalition should unite around my proposed legislation that prohibits the state from opening or establishing in Jerusalem a diplomatic representation that serves any foreign entity."
Barkat warns of a possible chain reaction. "There are no words to describe the size of the catastrophe if we do not act to prevent this. As soon as the United States unilaterally opens a consulate for the Palestinians, other countries could take similar measures, and then we will have lost the ability to stop such a process in the future."
In the meantime, the American administration is preparing the ground for the move, and has allocated a budget to operate the consulate in the west of the city. It has also begun looking into opening a branch of the consulate in the east of the city. An American source clarifies that opening the consulate "is an election promise made by Biden. He owes it this to large parts of the Democratic Party."
In Israel, on the other hand, a source inside the coalition warns the Americans that insisting on the reopening of the consulate, even after the budget passes will undermine the Bennett-Lapid government and could serve Benjamin Netanyahu. "There are ministers in the government who will be unable to live with this and may switch their support to the opposition," the source says. "I hope and believe that the Americans are taking this into account as well," he adds.