In Washington, ex-Jerusalem mayor lobbies against consulate reopening

Likud MK Nir Barkat says reviving mission to Palestinians would be major mistake that would signal support for dividing capital

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Likud MK Nir Barkat speaks at the opening of an ancient road at the City of David archaeological site in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, June 30, 2019. (Flash90)
Likud MK Nir Barkat speaks at the opening of an ancient road at the City of David archaeological site in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, June 30, 2019. (Flash90)

Likud MK Nir Barkat spent Thursday in Washington, DC, lobbying American lawmakers from both parties against reopening a diplomatic mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem that US President Donald Trump closed in 2019.

“I am sharing with them my deep concern about the intention of the administration to open up a consulate,” Barkat, who was mayor of Jerusalem from 2008 to 2018,  told The Times of Israel. “I am here to explain why it is a big mistake.”

The Biden administration has announced plans to reopen the consulate, which had served Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and acted as a de facto US mission to the Palestinians. When the Trump administration moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, the mission was subsumed into the embassy as the Palestinian Affairs Unit, which was regarded by Palestinians and others as a major blow to their diplomatic standing.

While Barkat did not raise any hackles about the consulate, which predates Israel, for all 10 years he was at the city’s helm, he now says that reopening the consulate is unnecessary with the US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, echoing the Trump administration’s own reasoning for shutting it.

Rather, he argued, the move would signal US legitimacy for the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem, which they envision as the capital of their future state.

“They want to divide the city of Jerusalem,” he said, presumably referring to the Palestinians. “This is not something we accept.”

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967 and considers the entire united city its capital, though its own claim was denied international legitimacy until Trump’s embassy move in 2019.

US President Joe Biden reaffirmed his plan to reopen the consulate during his meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in August. Bennett also publicly opposes reopening the embassy and dividing Jerusalem.

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

The Biden administration has agreed to hold off on changing the Palestinian Affairs Unit back into a consulate — the staff still operates out of the former consulate building on Agron Street near downtown — until after Bennett’s government passes a budget in November. Officials had worried that opening the consulate could trigger a rift within the broad coalition and destabilize or bring down Bennett’s government.

Barkat sits in the opposition, but like Bennett opposes statehood for the Palestinians and said he wants to keep the government from being pressured by the Americans on the matter.

He pointed to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as instructive of the dangers of giving up parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“What happened there is a big huge red light against even considering a two-state solution,” he said.

“If Israel leaves an inch of Judea and Samaria, and lets the Palestinians have their own state, you immediately have the Taliban and Hamas all over the country. This is not something acceptable.”

As proof that he speaks for the majority of Israeli society, he also commissioned a poll showing that 72% of Israeli voters oppose reopening the consulate.

He said the US embassy has spoken to his staff about the issue and about his opposition to the reopening.

Barkat, whose estimated NIS 500 million tech fortune makes him the richest Israeli politician, is funding the trip himself. He declined to disclose whom he would be meeting with.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat seen on top of the Tower of David Museum, on April 14, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On a July trip to Washington during which he also pushed against the consulate opening, Barkat met House minority leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Ted Deutch and Rep. Jake Auchincloss.

The former mayor claimed that the move to reopen the embassy was being pushed by the progressive flank of the Democratic party.

The “same group that is pushing the administration  to open the embassy is the same extreme group that wants to prevent Israel from securing itself through Iron Dome,” he said.

On Tuesday, aid to replenish stocks of interceptors for the Iron Dome air defense system was removed from a Democratic budget bill under pressure from progressive lawmakers.

“They don’t accept Israel as the Jewish state,” he said. “That is a small, extreme group within the Democratic Party. I believe that the majority of the party, together in bipartisanship with the Republicans, will eventually provide the supply of Iron Dome to Israel.”

The House passed a standalone Iron Dome funding bill late Thursday.

Barkat also expected to address Iran with US lawmakers.

“My message here is to be aggressive with the bad guys, be agreeable with the good guys,” he said.

“I’m here to reaffirm the need to be as aggressive as possible with Iran until they drop their will to create a bomb and support and promulgate terror in our region and all over the world.”

JTA contributed to this report. 

Most Popular
read more: