US holding off on reopening Jerusalem consulate amid strong pushback from Israel

But the US Embassy’s Palestinian Affairs Unit is now reporting directly to DC, as the shuttered Jerusalem mission did until 2019, in a partial revival of the pre-Trump status quo

Jacob Magid

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

US First lady Melania Trump, left, and US President Donald Trump, center, remain on stage as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, walk away at the conclusion of the second and final presidential debate, October 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
US First lady Melania Trump, left, and US President Donald Trump, center, remain on stage as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, walk away at the conclusion of the second and final presidential debate, October 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

It’s been seven months since US Secretary of State Antony Blinken notified Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the Biden administration’s plan to reopen the US Consulate in Jerusalem, but Washington has yet to even produce a timeline for when it plans to see the move through.

A US diplomat, a former senior US official and another source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel this week that the Biden administration has effectively shelved its effort to resurrect the de facto mission to the Palestinians shuttered by former president Donald Trump in 2019.

No final decision has been made, and the official State Department line remains that the Biden administration “will move forward with the process of reopening the consulate in Jerusalem,” but the three sources confirmed that no such process has begun. Moreover, even the administration’s more ardent advocates of reopening the consulate have shifted their focus to policies more likely to impact day-to-day life for Palestinians, the former senior US official said.

The apparent about-face follows significant pushback from Israel, which would have to sign off on the move. And as Israel is already gearing up for a fight with the Biden administration over the latter’s insistence on exhausting the diplomatic route in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal, the US is not looking to open up a second front by moving forward with the consulate reopening at the moment, the source familiar with the matter said.

Trump’s 2019 decision did not close the Agron Street building in West Jerusalem altogether. Its diplomats have continued working there, albeit under the auspices of a newly coined Palestinian Affairs Unit (PAU). However, that department is a subsection of the US embassy in the city, which the Palestinians have deemed a downgrade of their ties with the US.

Former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who facilitated the consulate’s closing, justified the move, saying the old mission had an anti-Israel bias and that its reporting would sometimes contradict the memos Washington was receiving from the US embassy. By channeling cables through one source, the messaging would be more coherent, Trump’s envoy argued.

A flag of the United States flies outside the then-US consulate building in Jerusalem, March 4, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Critics of the move say it led to Israel-centric, biased reporting that robbed decision-makers in Washington of a more authentic Palestinian perspective. Moreover, after decades of regular contact with the US consulate, the PA ceased working with the diplomats stationed there, limiting the PAU’s effectiveness from day one.

But following Blinken’s May announcement, the PA began ending its boycott, with Abbas agreeing to hold several meetings with the embassy’s then-chargé d’affaires Michael Ratney as well as PAU chief George Noll.

Whether the PA’s more flexible policy will remain in place despite plans to reopen the consulate moving to the back burner is unclear, but in the meantime Washington has taken one significant, albeit quiet, step to bring back the pre-Trump status quo in Jerusalem.

For the past several months, the PAU has begun independently reporting back to Washington, the three sources confirmed to The Times of Israel.

The State Department declined to comment on the matter.

“It’s not a perfect solution, and we still would like to see the consulate back up and running fully, but since that’s not happening any time soon — if at all — this is an important change as well as one that won’t anger the Israelis,” said the source familiar with the matter.

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)

Asked how they expect the stalled process to sit with the PA, the source suggested that the official administration’s policy of ambiguity on the matter showed that Washington recognized that Ramallah will not accept an interim solution. “It’s just not high on the priority list right now, though that could change down the line — perhaps when [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid becomes prime minister,” the source said.

Lapid, the centrist lawmaker slated to replace Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in August 2023, has publicly fallen in line with the government position against allowing the reopening of the consulate. But an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel earlier this year that Lapid changed his position after having initially given Blinken the impression that Jerusalem’s opposition was only due to timing and that reopening the consulate would be possible once the new government passed a budget — which it did in November.

Explaining the apparent about-face, Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar David Makovsky said “Lapid doesn’t want to give any party in the coalition any rationale not to support the rotation agreement in 2023.”

Analyzing the impasse on the consulate issue, he said, “Both sides have been dug in their heels.

“The Bennett government is truly convinced that Benjamin Netanyahu in the opposition will exploit any willingness to reopen the consulate as a way to insist a lack of commitment to Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. And when people think that their whole political future is on the line, it leads to uncompromising positions,” said Makovsky, who served as a senior adviser to then-US secretary of state John Kerry, helping facilitate the 2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“The American position is that they want to demonstrate that the Palestinian viewpoint will get across to decision-makers in Washington,” he said. “Therefore, the most logical conclusion is to look for creative ways around this issue. The idea of direct reporting to Washington — if accurate — would ensure that assessments of the Palestinian issue get to Washington in an unfiltered way.”

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