PA’s Abbas dismisses US bid to boost ties unless consulate reopened

Palestinian leader asks Blinken to hold off on appointing special envoy; US advance team will discuss issue further with Abbas in meeting this weekend

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

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)
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)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has expressed his dissatisfaction with the series of steps the Biden administration is planning to introduce in order to boost ties with Ramallah, deeming the measures insufficient so long as the US consulate in Jerusalem remains shuttered, two US and Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel on Monday.

The US planned to announce that Hady Amr, deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, would be elevated to the role of special envoy to the Palestinians before US President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel and the West Bank in late June, the two officials said last month. On Friday, the White House decided to delay the trip until July.

Days earlier, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shared the administration’s plan in a phone call with Abbas. As part of Amr’s new portfolio, he would visit the region regularly and work closely with the Palestinian Affairs Unit (PAU), which currently is a branch within the US Embassy to Israel and is housed at the old consulate building in Jerusalem.

In another move aimed at once again distinguishing between the diplomats serving the Palestinians and those serving the Israelis, the administration plans to have the PAU officially start reporting directly to Amr in Washington, rather than to the American ambassador in Israel, according to the US and Palestinian officials.

Abbas did not respond well to the proposals and asked Blinken to hold off on announcing them, according to the Palestinian and US officials.

“We expect the administration to uphold its commitments,” a Palestinian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “These proposals are band-aid solutions and do nothing to address Israeli crimes.”

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

Ties between Israel and the PA — which saw initial signs of improvement after the swearing-in of the new unity government last June — have gradually deteriorated. They hit a notable low in recent weeks with clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police on the Temple Mount, the fatal shooting of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the May 29 Jerusalem Day Flag March where significant portions of the roughly 70,000 religious-nationalist participants were filmed chanting racist slogans and harassing Palestinian onlookers in the Old City.

The US has not given up on the measures to strengthen ties with the Palestinians and will discuss the issue further with the PA when an advance team for Biden’s trip visits Ramallah at the end of the week, an American official said.

The official also dismissed the notion that the moves were meant to be in lieu of reopening the consulate in Jerusalem, which historically served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians before it was shuttered by former US president Donald Trump in 2019.

Reopening the consulate remains the administration’s goal and the proposed steps are part of the process toward doing so, the US official said. However, that explanation does not seem to convince the Palestinians, who have heard about the plan since the 2020 presidential campaign.

US Vice President Joe Biden (right) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 9, 2016. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

“We cannot accept moves instead of reopening the consulate,” the Palestinian official said. “Jerusalem is our capital.”

In May of last year, Blinken notified Abbas that the US was beginning the process of bringing back the mission. But the US immediately faced pushback from Israel, which argues that reestablishing a consulate serving the Palestinians inside Israeli territory would encroach on its sovereignty. Supporters of the move say it would simply restore the status the mission held for decades and note that roughly a dozen other countries have similar offices serving the Palestinians in Jerusalem.

The US could move ahead with reopening the consulate, daring Israel to refuse accrediting a consul general from an ally that grants it $3.8 billion in defense aid, but Biden has been intent on avoiding such public spats with Jerusalem and the move could also prompt strong domestic criticism. As a result, the matter has stalled for over a year, enraging Palestinian officials.

Asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson told The Times of Israel, “we have nothing to announce,” while the PA president’s office did not respond to a query on the matter.

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