Biden pushing off Jerusalem mission reopening until coalition stabilizes

US wary of causing a rift in Israel’s nascent, politically diverse coalition and bringing about Netanyahu’s return before budget passes, sources say

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

The United States Consulate General building in Jerusalem, March 4, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
The United States Consulate General building in Jerusalem, March 4, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The Biden administration has agreed to hold off on plans to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem for the Palestinians until after the new Israeli government has passed a budget in early November, an Israeli official confirmed on Wednesday.

The US is wary of moves that might destabilize Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s nascent coalition and bring about the return of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the official said, confirming an earlier Axios report.

The consulate, which mainly served the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, was officially shut down in 2019 by former US president Donald Trump as part of the administration’s transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem. Much of the staff at the historic mission on Agron Street have continued their same jobs at the same location, though under a newly named Palestinian Affairs Unit formed under the larger umbrella of US relations to Israel, considered a de facto downgrading of ties that Biden is keen to reverse.

Bennett’s government asked for the delay, explaining that opposition members would use the reopening of a de facto mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem to drive a wedge into the still-green coalition, the official said.

The new government, made up of an array of parties from across the political spectrum, still needs to agree on passing a budget before it can be considered stable enough to withstand such criticisms from the opposition. It has 145 days from its swearing-in to do so, otherwise elections will be called.

Palestinian Authority officials told visiting US lawmakers earlier this month they recognized that they would have to wait until after the Israeli government stabilizes until they can expect major gestures, such as the consulate reopening, a congressional aide confirmed to The Times of Israel.

The State Department is still holding early conversations on the matter, and the identity of the consul general who will lead the mission has not been decided, according to a source familiar with the matter.

(L-R) US House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US Embassy in Israel Charge D’affaires Michael Ratney at the US Embassy’s Independence Day celebration on July 5, 2021. (Ziv Sokolov/US Embassy in Jerusalem)

The consulate is expected to be reopened in the same building on Agron street in downtown West Jerusalem, where it was housed until the Trump administration folded the mission into its new embassy, the source said.

Reopening a consulate in Jerusalem will require some degree of Israeli approval and Bennett would prefer that a mission to the Palestinians be located in Ramallah, the source said.

However, the Israeli government has little grounds to dictate terms to the US — which grants them $3.8 billion in defense aid annually — where it should place its diplomatic missions. It is therefore expected to sign off on the move, the source added.

The latest delay follows reports from last month that said the US had agreed to hold off on reopening the consulate until after the summer for the same reason, per the Foreign Ministry’s request.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced his opposition to the move when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken notified him of the US plan in May.

Unlike the Obama administration, Biden officials have avoided identifying East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, instead insisting that such matters be left for the sides to determine in negotiations toward a two-state solution.

The Israeli impression based on recent talks with the Biden administration is that the US recognizes that it cannot push Jerusalem to take major steps vis-à-vis the Palestinians, which would risk collapsing the broad coalition, Israeli officials told The Times of Israel last month.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 25, 2021 (Haim Zach / GPO)

The Biden administration is willing to give Bennett some time before making asks in the Palestinian arena, but it’s not willing to accept complete paralysis and will speak out clearly against unilateral moves, a source familiar with the matter said then.

Biden campaigned on reopening both the consulate in Jerusalem as well as the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington, which was shuttered by Trump in 2018. Both moves will face legal hurdles.

While then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo justified the closure as an efficiency measure in 2019, many of the diplomats on the ground opposed the merger, and senior Palestinian officials subsequently severed contact with the Agron mission.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, Pool)

A former US official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that the Biden administration recognized the urgency of reopening the mission during the latest Gaza violence. As tensions spiked in Jerusalem in the weeks leading up to the May conflict in the Strip, the US lacked an independent mission with close ties to the relevant parties and an ability to thoroughly report back to Washington, the ex-official said, acknowledging that the White House had been late in its engagement efforts aimed at de-escalation.

That realization is what led the White House to prioritize reopening the consulate.

It’s not clear what the specific role of the consulate will be. The old mission was responsible for serving all residents of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Given that the vast majority of those civilians are Palestinian, the consulate was known as the de facto representative to them and its diplomats communicated regularly with PA officials.

Returning to the old paradigm would likely anger settlers and their supporters who believe they should be grouped with the rest of Israeli citizens that report to the embassy in Jerusalem, not the consulate, for their consular needs.

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