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East Jerusalem Consulate Is a Fight Biden Doesn’t Need

Whose homeland?
Whose homeland? (Photographer: David Silverman/Getty Images)

The Biden administration wants to reopen the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem to serve Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel is determined not to let that happen. The disagreement has the potential to turn into a genuine crisis.

The East Jerusalem consulate has long been seen in Israel as a nemesis and an advocate for the agenda of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. A de facto U.S. embassy to the Palestinians, the consulate also stood as a brick-and-mortar symbol of America’s refusal to accept Israeli sovereignty over the entire city of Jerusalem or to formally recognize it as Israel’s capital. That policy ended in 2018, when the Trump Administration accepted Israel’s claim to the united city and moved the U.S. embassy there. For Israel, this was the fulfilment of a national dream as well as a resounding diplomatic success.

Joe Biden is a friend of Israel, but not of his predecessor’s Jerusalem policy. The U.S. Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 made it virtually impossible to return the embassy to Tel Aviv. Successive presidents used their prerogative to postpone implementation of the law, until Trump put in into effect. This naturally infuriated the Palestinians and their supporters in Europe and the U.S. Reopening the consulate looks like the State Department’s way of signalling its regret over Trump’s move.

In late May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and gave him the news. “We’ll be opening a consulate [in East Jerusalem] as part of deepening ties with the Palestinians.” But the formal declaration lay dormant until last month, when Israel’s new foreign minister, Yair Lapid, visited Washington. At a joint press conference, Blinken once more noted that reopening the consulate remained American policy.

On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett broke his silence on the matter, telling a press conference that, “there is no place for an American consulate that serves the Palestinians in Jerusalem.” Lapid suggested an alternative. “If the Americans want to open a consulate in Ramallah, we have no problems with that.” 

A few hours later, President Abbas’s spokesman announced that there would be no consulate in Ramallah. For them, it would be Jerusalem or nothing. Historically, that has been the recipe for nothing.

The U.S. needs consent of the host nation to open a diplomatic facility. In most cases, permission is readily granted; but this is not one of those cases.

Israel is a fraught and contentious democracy, but the vast majority of its Jewish citizens see Jerusalem as the country’s sovereign capital. No conceivable government coalition, current or future, could surrender on this issue and survive. Certainly, then, no fragile government coalition will do so. If the U.S. presses, Israel will push back.

And it will not push alone. Some 200 Republican members of the House of Representatives have signed a letter protesting the reestablishment of a consulate in East Jerusalem. There will presumably be similar support among Senate Republicans. 

U.S. Democrats will want to stand by their president, but not all of them can. Many are self-proclaimed Zionists (as was Biden in his Senate days). They have pro-Israel constituents and donors who will not take kindly to an attempt to force an unwanted consulate on Israel. Even Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer may have qualms. In 2015, he voted against President Obama’s Iran deal, which Israel vehemently opposed.

Two senior Democratic Senators, Chris Coons of Delaware and Ben Cardin of Maryland, are currently in Israel as heads to two separate Congressional delegations. Both are members of the Foreign Relations Committee and both are known as friends of Israel and close to Biden. They will, presumably, be taking Israel’s temperature on the Jerusalem question and looking for a solution that does not lead to a public spat between Israel and the Biden administration.

Bennett, too, would like to avoid a public clash. Unlike his bombastic predecessor, Bibi Netanyahu, the new prime minister and his team believe in quiet diplomacy. In his Saturday night press conference, Bennett said that he planned to avoid “drama” over the consulate question. That won’t be easy — the future of Jerusalem has excited drama for two millennia.

The prime minister is counting on a dose of realism in Washington to save the day. Biden faces a long list of international challenges, including the Chinese military build-up, the Russian threat to invade Ukraine, tense nuclear negotiations with Iran, the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and a tumultuous Mexican border. Bennett is betting that Biden will not want to add a contentious dispute with Israel over Jerusalem to his to-do list. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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