US State Dept. official acknowledges Israel must approve consulate reopening

Deputy secretary of state tells senators ‘we need the consent of the host government to open any diplomatic facility,’ including a Jerusalem office to serve Palestinians

View of the US Consulate building in Jerusalem on October 27, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of the US Consulate building in Jerusalem on October 27, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A senior official in the US State Department told senators on Wednesday that Israel’s permission would be required before the United States could reopen its consulate in Jerusalem serving Palestinians.

US Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon appeared before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to answer questions on a variety of issues. McKeon was asked by Senator Bill Hagerty, a Republican from Tennessee, about the potential reopening of that consulate.

“I just want to confirm something, on the record — is it your understanding that under US and international law the government of Israel would have to provide its affirmative consent before the United States could open or reopen the US consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem?” Hagerty asked McKeon. “Or does the Biden administration believe it can move forward to establish a second US mission in the Israel capital city of Jerusalem without the consent of the government in Israel?”

McKeon replied: “Senator, that’s my understanding — that we need the consent of the host government to open any diplomatic facility.”

In this case though, the facility the US is likely to operate the consulate out of is already under its control. The only Israeli approval required in this process will be in the decision to accept the credentials of whomever the Biden administration appoints to be the consul general in Jerusalem when they are presented to President Isaac Herzog.

US President Joe Biden has pledged to reopen the consulate, but the issue has been a sticking point between Israel and the United States, as well as among some members of Congress. The consulate was shuttered by then-US president Donald Trump in 2019 and its staff was folded into the US embassy — which had been moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem a year earlier — in what the Palestinians view as a downgrading of their ties with the US.

US officials maintain that reopening the consulate is simply a return to the pre-Trump status quo and part of Biden’s pledge to renew relations with the Palestinians that were severed during the previous administration. Moreover, they point out, nearly a dozen other countries already operate consulates in Jerusalem that serve the Palestinians.

However, Israel is opposed to the administration’s plan to reopen the consulate, viewing it as an encroachment on their sovereignty in the city that will lead to a flood of other countries moving to open diplomatic offices in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians.

Asked about the issue during a press conference alongside Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Washington two weeks ago, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s intention to proceed with the plan. “As I said in May, we’ll be moving forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of deepening those ties with the Palestinians,” he said.

Behind closed doors, Lapid reportedly warned Blinken that such a move could risk toppling Israel’s fragile coalition government.

On Sunday, Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll hinted that the US would push off the consulate reopening as a result of Israeli pressure. “They understand the political complexities and the sensitivity, and the issue is being dealt with,” Roll said.

People protest against reopening of the US consulate serving Palestinians in Jerusalem, outside the US consulate in the capital on October 27, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hagerty has led the charge in Congress to thwart the Biden administration’s plans. On Tuesday, he headed up a group of 35 Republican senators in introducing a bill that would block the move. The “Upholding the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Law Act of 2021” proposal aims to prevent the US administration from relaunching the de facto mission to the Palestinians in Israel’s capital.

“President Biden continues to push forward his inflammatory plan to establish a second mission in Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem—one for the Israelis and a second one for the Palestinians—despite the fact that this plan violates the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 and is completely opposed by the Government of Israel,” said Hagerty in a statement introducing the bill.

With Republicans lacking a majority in both houses of Congress and with no Democrat likely to back legislation aimed at thwarting a key Biden administration policy initiative, the GOP bill has virtually no chance of passing.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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