Visiting Democrats push for reopening US consulate in Jerusalem

Issue shaping up to become a point of conflict between Washington and Jerusalem, with Biden apparently determined to reverse the Trump move

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

The US consulate on Agron Street in Jerusalem. (CC BY-SA, Magister/Wikimedia)
The US consulate on Agron Street in Jerusalem. (CC BY-SA, Magister/Wikimedia)

A group of visiting Democratic lawmakers expressed to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Friday their support for US President Joe Biden’s plan to reopen the American consulate in Jerusalem, which served as a de facto mission to the Palestinians.

The matter is gearing up to become a point of conflict between Washington and Jerusalem, which opposes the measure.

“In our meetings today in Israel with Prime Minister Bennett and other officials, we stressed the importance we place on reopening our consulate in Jerusalem to better serve Palestinians. This consulate was open for over 100 years before being cruelly shuttered by President Trump,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy, who is in Israel as part of a Congressional delegation to the Middle East along with three other progressive senators, Chris Van Hollen, Jon Ossoff and Richard Blumenthal.

Adding on to Murphy’s tweet, Van Hollen wrote on Twitter, “Yes, we had good meetings and raised this issue. It was also a commitment @POTUS made and important that he keep his word, follow through, and reverse Trump’s harmful decision.”

Trump moved to close the consulate in 2019 and integrate it with the embassy that had been moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, after he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Trump described it as an efficiency measure, but it was seen as a de facto downgrading of ties with the Palestinians.

Democratic US Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Much of the staff at the historic mission on Agron Street have continued doing the same jobs at the same location, though under a newly named Palestinian Affairs Unit formed under the larger umbrella of US relations to Israel.

Biden has expressed support for reversing the closure.

Asked for his position on the matter, Bennett told a group of US Jewish leaders Friday that Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel alone, while declining to comment further.

The premier has not gone as far as saying that he would block the move given that Israel’s authorization is required for a foreign country to open a mission in its territory. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also objected to the idea when it was first presented to him by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in May.

But an official in the room said Netanyahu did not go as far as to say he would not sign off on the matter if the US went forward with it.

The group of Democratic lawmakers also met with President Isaac Herzog, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Ram Ben-Barak.

After meeting with the group on Friday, Herzog tweeted, “Bipartisanship is a sacred pillar of the US-Israel alliance. Delighted to welcome a delegation of US Democratic Senators to Jerusalem. Held an open discussion with Senators @ChrisMurphyCT, @SenBlumenthal, @ChrisVanHollen & @ossoff about our shared interests and values.”

After meeting with Lapid on Thursday, Murphy tweeted, “We expressed our hopes for the success of the new government and our strong support for a two state future.”

Earlier this week, Lapid warned that restoring the de facto mission to Palestinians could tear apart Israel’s fragile coalition government.

“We think it’s a bad idea and we’ve told America we think it’s a bad idea,” Lapid said.

Lapid said the reopening “will send the wrong message, not only to the region, not only to the Palestinians, but also to other countries, and we don’t want this to happen.”

“And besides, we have an interesting yet delicate structure of our government and we think this might destabilize this government and I don’t think the American administration wants this to happen,” added the foreign minister, referring to the coalition that includes right-wing, centrists, left-wing and Arab parties.

In a statement responding to Lapid’s remarks, the US Embassy in Israel said, “the US will be moving forward with the process to reopen our consulate in Jerusalem.”

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