US readies steps to boost ties with Palestinians after freezing consulate reopening

State Department’s point-man on the conflict to be elevated to position of special envoy to Palestinians; US embassy’s Palestinian unit to report directly to him, not ambassador

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Hady Amr meets with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, in Ramallah on July 13, 2021. (WAFA)
US envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Hady Amr meets with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, in Ramallah on July 13, 2021. (WAFA)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has settled on a series of steps aimed at boosting its diplomatic ties to the Palestinians in lieu of reopening the US Consulate in Jerusalem — a move it reluctantly shelved amid Israeli opposition.

According to two US and Palestinian officials who spoke to The Times of Israel, US President Joe Biden will elevate Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to the role of special envoy to the Palestinians. Amr will remain in Washington but will make regular trips to the region and work closely with the Palestinian Affairs Unit, which currently is a branch within the US Embassy to Israel and is housed in the old Jerusalem consulate building.

The unit’s diplomats used to serve independently from the embassy until former US president Donald Trump shuttered the de facto mission to the Palestinians in 2019.

While the Trump administration cited efficiency reasons for the decision — given that it had moved the US embassy to Jerusalem a year earlier — the step was seen by the Palestinian Authority as a downgrade of its ties with the US, and Ramallah has largely refused to engage with the PAU.

But in a move aimed at again setting apart the diplomats serving the Palestinians from those serving the Israelis, the PAU will officially begin reporting directly to Amr in Washington, rather than to the US ambassador in Israel, the US and Palestinian officials said.

A US diplomat told The Times of Israel last December that the PAU was already de facto reporting directly to Washington, but the move was never formalized or announced.

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

The two officials who spoke to The Times of Israel last week said the Biden administration is hoping to finalize the series of steps before the president’s trip to Israel and the West Bank that is expected to take place in late June.

Andrew Miller is slated to replace Amr as deputy assistant secretary for Israeli and Palestinian affairs. Miller currently serves as a policy adviser at the US Mission to the UN but was previously director for Egypt and Israel Military Issues at the White House National Security Council during the Obama administration.

The State Department and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s office both declined requests for comment.

Too little, too late?

Amr has longstanding ties with senior PA officials and is well-liked in Ramallah, but it is unclear whether his elevation along with the changes to the PAU will satisfy the Palestinians, who have grown increasingly frustrated at the Biden administration’s failure to follow through on its promise to reopen the consulate.

Biden, during his presidential campaign, pledged to resurrect both the mission in Jerusalem and the PLO’s diplomatic office in Washington, which Trump shut down in 2018.

In May 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the administration would begin the process of reopening the Jerusalem consulate. But the US faced immediate pushback, first from then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then from his successor Naftali Bennett, who argued 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 over roughly a dozen other countries have similar offices serving the Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Joe Biden after their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday, March 10, 2010. (AP/Bernat Armangue)

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.

Israeli authorities proposed that the US reopen the mission in Ramallah or Abu Dis in the West Bank, but these ideas have been rejected out of hand by the PA, which views East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

As time has passed, anger in Ramallah over the issue has grown significantly. In January, three Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel that Ramallah may respond by nixing reforms sought by the Biden administration, including changes to payments it makes to security prisoners who have carried out attacks against Israelis.

Earlier this month, several PA officials described a feeling of despair in Ramallah regarding the possibility that Biden would be able to reopen the consulate, let alone make headway on their issue more broadly.

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