WASHINGTON (AP) — US President Donald Trump is considering giving US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman more authority over the US outpost that handles Palestinian affairs, five US officials said, a shift that could further dampen Palestinian hopes for an independent state.
Any move to downgrade the autonomy of the US Consulate General in Jerusalem — responsible for relations with the Palestinians — could have potent symbolic resonance, suggesting American recognition of Israeli control over East Jerusalem and the West Bank. And while the change might be technical and bureaucratic, it could have potentially significant policy implications.
As president, Trump has departed from traditional US insistence on a “two-state solution” for the Mideast conflict by leaving open the possibility of just one state. As his administration prepares to unveil a long-awaited peace plan, the Palestinians have all but cut off contact, enraged by Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
The deliberations come as Friedman, who has pushed for changes to the consulate since he arrived in Israel last year, faces growing indignation in the US over partisan comments and other actions in which he has publicly sided with the Israeli government over its critics. On Thursday, a top Democratic lawmaker even suggested Friedman should be recalled after he waded into domestic US politics, telling The Times of Israel that Democrats have failed to support Israel as much as Republicans.
For decades, the Jerusalem consulate has operated differently than almost every other consulate around the world. Rather than reporting to the US Embassy in Israel, it has reported directly to the State Department in Washington, giving the Palestinians an unfiltered channel to engage with the US government.
That arrangement was relatively clear-cut before Trump moved the embassy. Until Trump’s decision in December to move it from Tel Aviv, the United States did not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Jerusalem consulate provided services to Americans in Jerusalem and also served as the de facto US embassy to the Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem for the capital of a future independent state.
But since Trump earlier this month moved the embassy to Jerusalem, the situation has become more complicated. Now the US maintains an embassy in one part of the city and a separate consulate less than a mile away, potentially creating confusion about who has ultimate authority if, for example, an American citizen needs help and turns to the US government.
No final decision has been made about what changes might be made to the consulate’s chain of command, a decision complicated by the consulate’s unique circumstances. But the embassy, run by Friedman, is expected to end up with ultimate authority over the consulate, officials said. They weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity.
Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel, said such a move would be perceived as undermining the Palestinians’ claims to sovereignty and statehood aspirations, because it would suggest that Washington considers the Palestinian Authority to be under Israel’s jurisdiction. Otherwise, Shapiro said, why would it expect the Palestinians to talk to the US through its mission to Israel?
“They don’t want to deal with the US Embassy to Israel as their channel,” said Shapiro, now a scholar at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. “They want their voice to be heard directly in Washington.”
Typically, the head of a consulate, known as a consul general, reports to the ambassador, who has “chief of mission authority” over all US posts in the country. In contrast, the consul general running the Jerusalem consulate has historically had his or her own chief of mission authority. The closest comparable case to the Jerusalem situation is the US Consulate in Hong Kong, which also has its own chief of mission who does not report to the US ambassador in Beijing.
Friedman has advocated for having the embassy in Jerusalem subsume the consulate, officials said, although the State Department has ruled out that possibility. Other possibilities include allowing the consulate to retain some day-to-day authorities while letting the embassy set the direction for major policy decisions.
Staunchly pro-Israel and with close ties to the West Bank settler movement, Friedman is broadly seen by Palestinian leaders as lacking good faith in US efforts to mediate a fair resolution to the conflict. But on the consulate issue, he has an ally in the White House in the form of National Security Advisor John Bolton, the officials said.
It wasn’t clear precisely when the changes would be made, although one official said the administration is waiting until current Consul General Donald Blome leaves Jerusalem over the summer, possibly in July.
Regardless of any changes, the Jerusalem consulate will remain the primary US point of contact for the Palestinian Authority and for Palestinians, including those in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip seeking visas or other US consular services.
“Consulate General Jerusalem continues to operate as an independent mission with an unchanged mandate from its historic Agron Road location,” the State Department said in a statement.
Such changes would likely be carried out by Trump issuing new “letters of instruction,” which delegate authorities to ambassadors and chiefs of mission, to Friedman and whoever heads the Jerusalem consulate, the official said.
Separately, the Trump administration is also facing calls in Congress for the US to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war. Although Israel annexed the Golan in 1981, the US and others consider it to be disputed territory with its status subject to an eventual peace deal between Israel and Syria.
In recent months, however, Iran’s increasing involvement in Syria and growing presence in southern Syria near the Golan Heights have drawn alarm in Israel and elsewhere, leading some US law- and policy-makers to believe that Washington should end its official neutrality in a show of support for Israeli security in the face of a threat from Iran and its proxies.
Ideas under discussion range from flat-out recognition that the Golan is part of Israel to lifting restrictions on US investment incentives for projects or more symbolic steps like including the area on official maps as part of Israel.