US reopens line of communication for Palestinians severed by Trump

Bureaucratic, yet symbolic step will see US diplomats tasked with Palestinian file report directly to DC, rather than US envoy to Israel, though unit remains under embassy auspices

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 Biden administration on Thursday restored a line of communication to the Palestinian Authority that had been cut by former US president Donald Trump.

The largely bureaucratic, yet symbolic step came as Washington continued to hold off on reopening the US consulate in Jerusalem, a move demanded by Ramallah but opposed by Israel’s government.

The de facto mission to the Palestinians was shuttered in 2019 and its diplomats were moved to a body called the Palestinian Affairs Unit (PAU) under the auspices of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. That made US-Palestinian diplomacy into a subdivision of Washington’s ties with Israel, hampering communication, according to officials.

Early Thursday, the PAU’s name was officially changed to the Office of Palestinian Affairs. The new office will remain under the auspices of the embassy, but now “reports on substantive matters directly” to the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs Bureau in Washington, a spokesman for the newly named office told The Times of Israel.

For the past three years, those communications would have gone through the US ambassador to Israel.

“We felt that it was important to reintroduce separate reporting lines to Washington on Israeli and Palestinian issues, by our respective teams on the ground that focus on these issues,” the spokesman added.

The Trump administration cited efficiency reasons when it shuttered the Jerusalem consulate. Then-US ambassador to Israel David Friedman claimed the diplomats in the US embassy and the US consulate had dueling views shaped by their respective contacts with Israelis and Palestinians and that this caused confusion back in Washington. Opponents of the move said separating the two offices’ operations allowed Washington to receive unfettered reporting from the ground with neither perspective influencing the other.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the US embassy’s new site in Jerusalem, May 30, 2018, posing ahead of a Times of Israel interview. (Matty Stern, US Embassy Jerusalem)

But diplomats were never able to truly test the new format, as the Palestinian Authority boycotted the PAU, refusing to engage with a subdivision of the US Embassy to Israel. That boycott has largely remained in place, and it is unclear whether the change in name and reporting decorum will be enough to convince the PA otherwise.

The OPA will continue to be led by George Noll, who has headed the PAU for the past several years.

“The name change was done to better align with State Department nomenclature,” the OPA spokesman said. “The new OPA reporting structure is designed to strengthen our diplomatic reporting and public diplomacy engagement.”

The move is the first in a series of steps aimed at boosting ties with the Palestinians, first reported by The Times of Israel last month.

The more significant step the US planned to announce before US President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to Israel was to elevate Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to the role of special envoy to the Palestinians, two US and Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel last month.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shared the plan with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a phone call last week, but the latter did not take well to the idea, demanding that the Biden administration uphold its repeated pledges to reopen the consulate, the two officials said. Abbas asked Blinken to hold off on announcing Amr’s new position.

The US has not given up on the move 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 delegation will be led by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hosts an American delegation led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, who is flanked to his left by US Embassy Charge D’affaires Michael Ratney and Palestinian Affairs Unit Chief George Noll on October 5, 2021. (WAFA)

The official also dismissed the notion that the moves were meant to be in lieu of reopening the consulate in Jerusalem. Reopening the consulate remains the administration’s goal and the proposed steps are part of the process toward doing so, the US official claimed. However, that explanation does not seem to convince the Palestinians, who have heard about the plan since the 2020 presidential campaign.

Israel has pushed back on the plan, arguing that a mission serving Palestinians operating from Israeli territory was an encroachment on the Jewish state’s sovereignty. Supporters of the move noted that it was simply a return to the decades-old status quo and that roughly a dozen other countries have similar offices serving the Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Though the US could have moved 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, Biden has been intent on avoiding such public spats with Jerusalem. As a result, efforts have been stuck for over six months.

The US also updated Israel ahead of time of Thursday’s move and the latter did not voice any objection, an Israeli official said.

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