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Group of ex-IDF generals urges MKs to back US reopening of Jerusalem consulate

Commanders for Israel’s Security chairman says Biden plan consistent with stated Israeli desire to strengthen PA, pans politicians for ‘inflating issues to existential proportions’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

View of the US Consulate building in Jerusalem on October 27, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of the US Consulate building in Jerusalem on October 27, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — The chairman of a group of over 300 ex-IDF generals and security agency chiefs penned a letter to Israeli lawmakers and cabinet members on Monday urging them to back the Biden administration’s plan to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem.

Last May, Washington announced that it would reopen the mission that historically served as the representative office to the Palestinians and was shuttered by former president Donald Trump in 2019. Jerusalem opposes the plan, saying it encroaches on its sovereign in the city, which should not host diplomatic missions serving non-Israelis.

In his letter, Commanders for Israel’s Security chairman Matan Vilnai argued that supporting the move would be in line with the new Israeli government’s stated policies of strengthening the Palestinian Authority and “shrinking the conflict.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have spoken in support of the former concept while Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who opposes diplomatic negotiations with the PA and refuses to meet its President Mahmoud Abbas, has preferred to emphasize the latter position in his meetings with US officials.

“Few political/diplomatic measures — with no security downside — can make a greater contribution to strengthening the stature of the PA among Palestinians, stabilize its governance capacity and hence secure the continuity of security coordination, more than reopening of the American consulate,” argued Vilnai, whose group works to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Vilnai noted that pushing back on the Biden administration’s plan could damage Jerusalem’s efforts to rebuild ties with Democrats and broader bipartisan support for Israel in the US.

Matan Vilnai, a Cabinet minister and former general, will be Israel's next envoy to China. (Photo: Flash90)
Matan Vilnai, a former cabinet minister and IDF general. (Flash90)

“The consulate reopening is bound to upgrade the US-PA dialogue, thus enhance Washington’s capacity to affect PA policies on matters of importance to Israel,” he added.

He went on to caution lawmakers against “our tendency to artificially inflate issues to existential proportions.”

“It was not the existence of the consulate that divided Jerusalem; its closure did not unite the city; nor will its renewal affect in any way the freedom of sovereign decisions of this or future governments regarding the fate of the city,” Vilnai said.

Separately on Monday, US Congressman Josh Gottheimer appeared to become the first Democrat to raise opposition to the consulate reopening.

“The US has never opened a diplomatic office without the approval of the host government, and to do so in Israel would create a double standard,” the hawkish Democrat said in a statement. “Any decision on this issue should be made with Israel’s consent and must recognize that Jerusalem is Israel’s undivided capital.”

Gottheimer joins the camp of almost every other Republican on the issue, with opponents of the Biden plan falling in line with the Israeli position.

Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Israel indeed must accredit the consular general that the US sends to Jerusalem, according to diplomatic protocol, making it impossible for Washington to take such a step without some sort of buy-in from the government.

However, the property from which the Biden administration plans to operate the consulate on Agron Street in west Jerusalem is already owned by the US government, so no new Israeli permission would be required on that front. The building has remained open since the consulate was closed, but the staff inside were folded into the new US Embassy in the city, into a new department called the Palestinian Affairs Unit — a move that the Palestinians view as a downgrading of their ties with the US.

The PA Foreign Ministry has deemed the PAU diplomats largely to be personae non gratae, with diplomats refusing to meet with their US counterparts. However, Abbas has been meeting with the embassy’s interim chargé d’affaires Michael Ratney and PAU chief George Noll in recent months, officials in Washington and Jerusalem confirmed to The Times of Israel last month.

Bennett and Lapid held a joint press conference earlier this month where they doubled down in the opposition to the consulate reopening. Lapid proposed that the mission be reopened in Ramallah — an idea that the Palestinians reject outright, insisting that they too have a claim to Jerusalem, the eastern part of which they view as the capital of their future state.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speak at a press conference in Jerusalem, on November 6, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

At Lapid’s request, the US agreed to hold off on reopening the consulate until after the new Israeli government passed a budget earlier this month, which is believed to stabilize the coalition for the near future. Washington had been under the impression that inherent in Lapid’s request to delay the reopening was a recognition and acceptance that it would eventually take place, sources in Jerusalem and Washington have told ToI.

But Lapid and the Israeli government have since hardened their position, and the issue appears to be snowballing into the first diplomatic rift between the two new governments. Bennett told a group of visiting Democratic lawmakers last week that while he will not try and “score political points” on the issue and that he recognizes reopening the consulate had been a campaign promise of Biden’s, he does not plan to allow the move, a Congressional aide confirmed to ToI.

The US has refused to outline a timeline of when it plans to see the move through.

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