Two years ago, American diplomats gathered in the courtyard of the US Consulate General on Agron Street in Jerusalem to ceremoniously mark the closing of the diplomatic mission after 175 years.
Citing efficiency reasons, the Trump administration had decided to fold what had for decades served as the de facto US representative office to the Palestinians into its new embassy to Israel in the capital. It was a controversial move opposed by a majority of foreign service officers at the consulate, who saw it as a downgrade of US-Palestinian relations that would sabotage their work, according to ex-diplomats who spoke to The Times of Israel for this story.
Consul General Karen Sasahara, whose position had consequently been dissolved, addressed the dozens of foreign service officers present at the event, thanking them for their efforts in boosting US-Palestinian ties over the years.
To conclude the ceremony, one of the mission’s marine guards began lowering the American flag on site.
“And then it got stuck,” recalled a former diplomat.
“As they tried to yank it down for what felt like five minutes, we just stood there awkwardly, all thinking the same thing: The flag knows,” the diplomat said. “The flag knows, but the administration is not able to admit that this is a terrible decision.”
Today, as the Biden administration looks to repair ties with the Palestinians, diplomats who were stationed in Jerusalem at the time of the consulate closure say reversing the move will be essential to getting the relationship back on track. Speaking to The Times of Israel, the officers have pulled back the curtain for the first time on the extent of internal opposition to the merger of the Agron Street consulate with the new Jerusalem embassy, which they say was carried out in a slapdash manner and resulted in serious harm to the ability of diplomats to engage the Palestinian Authority.
“You are prepared for policy swings between administrations, but you also expect for there to be a degree of respect for the process. With the closing of the consulate, there was none of that,” lamented a current foreign service officer, who was stationed in Israel when the merger was announced. “[US Ambassador to Israel David] Friedman and a handful of people in Washington made the decision without consulting with anyone.”
According to the diplomats, the move impacted their ability to do their jobs. Cables were now channeled through Friedman — a longtime backer of the settlement enterprise and critic of the Palestinian Authority. Meetings with Palestinian and even European officials dried up as these diplomats were no longer seen as impartial mediators of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Several diplomats stationed at the consulate resigned and some others requested and received transfers to missions elsewhere.
Friedman, though, defended the shutdown as necessary to end a situation in which diplomats at the US embassy and the US consulate represented dueling views shaped by their contacts with the Israelis and Palestinians, respectively.
“There is no particular reason why diplomacy from this country shouldn’t speak with one voice,” he said. “It just creates confusion. Lots of other countries are complicated too, but they have one embassy with a [corresponding] consulate that reports to it.”
Sign change or sea change?
On the face of it, the Trump administration’s decision might not appear all that dramatic.
Before the merger, most consular services (such as visas and passports) were run out of the consulate’s modern building in the capital’s peripheral Arnona neighborhood. Those involved with various aspects of actual diplomacy, such as public affairs and economic issues, worked out of the consulate’s historic Agron Street location, a 150-year-old former manse on a main road near downtown Jerusalem.
After the merger, that building, which had also served as a residence for the consul general, became the headquarters of the Palestinian Affairs Unit. The Agron site became a vassal to the Arnona building, which had already been transformed into the embassy mothership. (In Tel Aviv, the fortress-like beachfront embassy became an “embassy branch office.”)
Most of the consulate’s staff continued serving the residents of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip as they had before March 2019, and even continued working from the same Agron Street building. Foreign service officers continued reporting back to Washington on developments in the Palestinian territories. They were still tasked with building relationships with the residents and representatives of those areas as they had before the merger.
Settlers in the West Bank and Jewish residents of East Jerusalem came under the aegis of the embassy, joining all other Israelis.
From the outside, the only physical change that took place was the removal of the “United States Consulate General” sign at the front of the Jerusalem-stone building and its replacement with a plaque that read “US Embassy to Israel.”
But American diplomats in Jerusalem at the time said that behind the scenes a sea change was underway, starting with the loss of an independent consul general who did not answer to the ambassador.
“By removing the consul general — a de facto independent representative to the Palestinians who didn’t have to go through the US ambassador in Israel in order to report on the situation to Washington — all future reporting would have to be channeled through Friedman,” said one former diplomat who requested anonymity.
The move wound up impeding reporting on certain West Bank activity that may have dented pro-settlement policies pursued by Friedman, diplomats said.
Three foreign service officers stationed in Jerusalem at the time said that the number of cables on settlement construction and settler violence decreased significantly.
Reasons for this were manifold, explained one former diplomat: Some cables got mired in the policy clearing process and others were self-censored by diplomats who felt that Friedman wouldn’t want to read what was being reported.
The most significant reason had to do with a reduction in manpower: Before the merger, the consulate had an officer charged with dealing with the settlers themselves along with their interactions with Palestinians. Following the merger, the latter position was dissolved, diplomats said. A separate position for a political officer in Tel Aviv assigned to tracking and reporting on the various Israeli government offices’ policies and statements regarding the settlements remained in place.
“They wanted Israel to increase its strength and power in the settlements and the West Bank and to silence the policy-makers and bureaucrats on the ground who might — based on their experience, knowledge and relationships — poke holes in the fantasy narrative that they had been building publicly,” said one former diplomat.
As reporting on settlement activity fell off, so too did meetings with Palestinian officials. The PA loudly declared high-level contacts with the US verboten in anger over the decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and all but ceased its interactions with senior leadership at what once was the consulate. It also agreed to fewer meetings with junior US diplomats, foreign service officers said. Europeans as well cut down on meetings with staffers who had formerly been attached to the consulate.
“The Europeans knew that closing the consulate wasn’t the decision of us career diplomats, but they were too afraid to combat Trump directly in DC, so they instead chose to piss on the peons,” a diplomat claimed.
The US became the only major world power without an independent consulate to the Palestinians. Other countries continued to meet and coordinate policy on the matter, but US officials weren’t always invited to those sit-downs, said Ari Gore, a former economic officer at the Jerusalem consulate.
“While the stated goal was to be more efficient, the merger resulted in us being unable to leverage our relationships with our partners to ask them to burden-share,” he added.
Though most diplomats only spoke to ToI on the condition of anonymity, Gore, who no longer works for the US State Department, was sufficiently troubled by the move that he was willing to identify himself.
The move “appeared to be an attempt to undermine the bureaucrats working on the Palestinian file and, subsequently, the Palestinian negotiating position by cutting off their direct access to Washington,” he said last month.
Friedman, though, claimed that the merger actually boosted Palestinians’ access to power. “When you’re the ambassador, people listen to what you have to say. When you’re the consul general, you’re reporting to a black hole in the State Department, and that’s where it ends,” he said.
But one senior ex-diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity noted the value in maintaining an independent entity for Washington’s contacts with the Palestinians so that the relationship is not influenced by the US’s ties with Israel.
“Where you sit influences your perspective,” the former foreign service officer explained. “That doesn’t mean that everyone who sits in Tel Aviv is automatically going to see everything from Israeli eyes and those at the consulate will only see things through Palestinians’ eyes, but it might shape your perspective to be in one place over another.”
“That’s why it’s good to have both, because when you merge them into one you’re almost certainly going to allow one perspective to cloud your understanding of the other,” he said.
Ilan Goldenberg, who served as chief of staff to the State Department’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the Obama administration, echoed that sentiment. “The consulate essentially acted as our connection to the Palestinians since the 1990s and was key to our ability to conduct peace negotiations and play a mediating role between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.
Until its closure, the Jerusalem consulate was one of two independent missions that the US operated around the world due to the unique status of the area of responsibility, the other being in Hong Kong.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s senior diplomatic adviser Majdi al-Khalidi explained that the consulate “has an institutional memory” for Palestinians.
“The first Palestinian immigrants to the US got their visas from there as well as it looks after American pilgrims coming to Palestine. It established a robust diplomatic presence that played a pivotal role for the peace process and became part of the Palestinian daily life in many aspects, from politics to economy and cultural activities,” he said.
“This is something impossible to achieve under the current US arrangements through an embassy that we certainly don’t recognize as legitimate. That is one of several reasons why reopening the US Consulate is a basic step in the right direction,” Khalidi added.
Out of the loop
According to Gore and other diplomats, the decision to close the consulate in October 2018 came with no heads-up to those on the ground nor input from them, pulling the rug out from under their diplomatic efforts.
“I remember it well because it was simply announced. No warning, no consultations, no weighing the pros, cons, and potential third-order effects or impact on US ability to project power locally,” he said.
“We found out about the merger via press release,” added Gore, who read then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s announcement while walking into a meeting to coordinate Gaza policy with counterparts at the US Embassy in Cairo.
“This decision is driven by our global efforts to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our operations,” the press release read.
Gore said he was just as surprised as his Cairo-based counterparts who all but asked why they were “wasting time meeting with us when we were so out of the loop and didn’t know whether our office would exist a few months from now.”
Two senior diplomats at the consulate confirmed that they were not notified of the decision ahead of time.
Friedman, who spoke to ToI at length for this story, insisted that “senior people, including the consul general, were aware of [the merger] and [were] planning for it for some time.”
The State Department refused to grant a request to interview Sasahara, who is now deputy assistant secretary of state for North Africa.
Voices of dissent
Since 1971, the State Department has had a channel open for diplomats abroad to express concerns about policy decisions to Foggy Bottom without fear of reprisal. The mechanism is used sparingly, but two dissent cables, as the messages are called, were sent from Jerusalem during the Trump administration, including one following the consulate merger announcement, Friedman confirmed.
The cable, sent during the mission’s final days, was signed by over a dozen diplomats including foreign policy officials around the world.
While the content of the cable is classified, sources indicated that it included criticism of the merger, highlighting many of the reasons enumerated above.
“No one I spoke to disagreed with the overall message, though some were afraid to participate due to concerns that there might be repercussions,” one of the cable’s authors said recently.
Friedman said he was aware of the dissent cable and allowed it to be passed along to Washington unedited.
The Trump administration, which was legally mandated to respond to the message, largely parroted the statement announcing the move and did not address the concerns raised by the diplomats, one of the co-signers said.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to change the direction of the ship, but I didn’t want to feel like I didn’t try to do everything that was expected of me in my role,” the co-signer added.
The little echo chamber that couldn’t
Friedman rejected the idea that the merger was designed to marginalize the Palestinians and said it was rather an attempt to fix a situation in which US diplomats in the region appeared to be working at cross-purposes.
“Washington was receiving reports from two different groups of diplomats seated miles apart from each other but writing two different things. That’s about as inefficient as you can get,” the former ambassador said. “By merging, what we did was force the diplomatic corps to work together to reconcile issues — not to take a particular side, but to at least have everyone on the same page.”
The envoy lamented an old policy that had barred embassy officials tasked with monitoring settlements from even crossing into the West Bank. Friedman also claimed that those in the consulate had virtually no contact with settlers, even though they were tasked with dealing with them — a claim that was vigorously denied by the ex-diplomats interviewed.
The ambassador claimed that those requesting placement in the consulate were predisposed to be more sympathetic to the Palestinians, leading to “one-sided” reports on human rights, settlements and Palestinian affairs.
“I met with the Palestinian staff at the consulate general after the merger was announced, and I explained to them that the downside was that they’d no longer have their own private echo chamber where they could complain and have their views heard… The upside, though, was that it’s no longer an echo chamber but a place where they can actually talk to someone who’s engaged in crafting the peace plan, who has a relationship with the president and secretary of state,” Friedman said.
The Trump ambassador maintained that the consulate had only become a de facto representative to the Palestinians “by accident” when American administrations began using it as a convenient independent base for diplomacy with the Palestinians under the post-Oslo Accords assumption that the Palestinians would soon have a state.
But as prospects for Palestinian statehood appear as distant as ever, Friedman said it would be inappropriate for an independent consulate to be reopened. “We don’t have a mission to the Kurds,” he pointed out.
Symbols and signals
Lara Friedman (no relation to the ambassador), who served as political officer responsible for tracking settlement activity at the Jerusalem consulate in the 1990s, noted that it had long been the desire of settlers and their advocates to close the consulate.
“They want to be able to say that all of Jerusalem belongs to Israel and there is only one legitimate grouping between the river and the sea,” she said. “Having any diplomatic representation that is not linked to the government of Israel is a contradiction of that.”
Having to go through the US consulate long annoyed settler leaders, but it was something they adapted to, said Lara Friedman, noting that settler leaders even attended the consulate’s Fourth of July party each year rather than the one held at the ambassador’s Herzliya residence.
She noted that even if the Biden administration decides to open a consulate for the Palestinians, so long as the embassy continues the Trump-instituted policy of serving Israelis on both sides of the Green Line alike, Washington will still be “de facto treating the West Bank as Israeli sovereign territory.”
Friedman, who now serves as president of the DC-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, flatly rejected the former ambassador’s characterization of the merger as an upgrade. “This is effectively saying to… [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas that he is now the equivalent of the mayor of Haifa.”
Taking further issue with the Trump envoy’s reasoning for nixing the consul general post, she said, “The idea that it is bad for US policy to have more than one viewpoint suggests that the less information you have the better.”
The senior ex-diplomat who spoke on background downplayed the importance of the merger in determining the state of peace negotiations or Ramallah’s already weakened bargaining power, adding that the conflict would not live or die by the mission’s status.
“If you’re ever going to get to the point where there’s a formal peace deal, it’s going be a political decision that has nothing to do with whether there’s an independent consulate,” he said.
At the same time, though, he acknowledged the political symbolism that the consulate represented for Palestinians.
But while the Biden administration has voiced its desire to open a mission to the Palestinians, returning to the status quo will not be easy. Opening an independent consulate in Jerusalem will require permission from the government of Israel, which likely won’t jump at the opportunity to open its doors to an entity that effectively questions the Jewish state’s sovereignty over the holy city.
Sources familiar with the matter said Washington believes that Israel will ultimately acquiesce to the move, preferring to reserve its fiercest objections for other, more pressing issues.
Finding a location for such a consulate, however, is a potential minefield.
Housing the mission in East Jerusalem would likely lead to more significant Israeli backlash given the signal it would be giving regarding where the US views the future Palestinian capital. Placing it somewhere in the West Bank would likely spark anger from Ramallah for the same reason.
Sources said the simplest location for the consulate would be at the old location on Agron Street in West Jerusalem, as it marks the closest thing to the status quo. While the Trump administration had earmarked the building to become the ambassadorial residence, having sold the former one in Herzliya, that move faces significant hurdles.
But no matter where it is, former diplomats interviewed for the piece insisted that reopening a consulate in some form will be crucial.
“An independent office signals to those you’re working with that you’ll be backed up,” said Gore, “that what you say matters and the people you’re charged with engaging matter.”