Israel urging US to delay plans to reopen consulate until new gov’t stabilizes

While Biden administration hopes to quickly re-establish de facto mission to Palestinians, Jerusalem has asked that it hold off until after the summer

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 new Israeli government has asked the Biden administration to temporarily hold off on its plans to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem as the de facto mission to the Palestinians, due to fears that the move might put a strain on Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s nascent coalition.

The Foreign Ministry asked Washington to wait until at least the end of the summer to give time for the politically diverse Israeli government to stabilize, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel, confirming Axios reporting on the matter.

Israeli officials believe the administration understands the complexity of the matter and will refrain from pressing it for the time being.

Israel is required to sign off on the move, and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced his opposition when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken notified him of US plans to reopen the downtown Jerusalem consulate, which was shuttered by the Trump administration in 2019.

Ultimately though, the government in Jerusalem is expected to sign off on the reopening out of respect to US wishes.

The matter was likely raised Wednesday when Bennett met with Michael Ratney, the Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Israel.

While a location for the consulate has not been finalized, its old site on Agron Street in West Jerusalem is the most likely option as reopening the mission there would not create a new precedent. While the US might prefer a location in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians view as their future capital, Israel would likely be more opposed to the message sent by such a move.

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 this week.

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.

In 2019, the Trump administration merged the 175-year-old Jerusalem consulate into the US embassy in the city, which had been transferred from Tel Aviv a year earlier. Much of the staff at the historic mission on Agron Street 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.

Then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo justified the move, saying it would lead to greater efficiency. However, many of the diplomats on the ground opposed the merger, and senior Palestinian officials subsequently severed contact with the Agron mission.

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.

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 fast-track plans to reopen the consulate.

It’s not clear what the specific role of the consulate will be. The old mission on Agron 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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