When pressed during a public conference Tuesday about whether Israel would allow the consulate’s reopening if the Biden administration pushed for it, Saar repeatedly registered his opposition, a response that drew applause from the audience.
“I spoke with [Prime Minister Naftali Bennett] a couple of times on the issue. We are on the same page, and we don’t see differently,” Saar added. “Someone said it’s an electoral commitment. But for us, it’s a generation’s commitment. We will not compromise on this.”
The State Department could not be reached for comment early Wednesday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in May that the United States would reopen the Jerusalem consulate that traditionally engaged with Palestinians, but observers say the issue presents a dilemma for the Biden White House.
Although the administration may wish to reopen the consulate, it does not want the issue to become a wedge in Israeli domestic politics or weaken a government it considers “more moderate than its predecessor,” according to David Makovsky, a senior adviser to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the Obama era.
Bennett headed the small, right-wing Yamina party before taking office by putting together a coalition government with more-centrist parties in the fourth nationwide election in two years. Bennett is the first prime minister to have lived in a Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank — illegal under international law — and has made clear his objection to Palestinian statehood.
Nir Barkat, a member of the Knesset and a top contender to replace former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as leader of the right-wing Likud party, proposed a bill in July that sought to bar countries from creating diplomatic missions in Jerusalem that are not missions to Israel.
U.S. consular doors can be opened in Jerusalem only with Israel’s approval, said Ron Hassner, who teaches international conflict and religion at the University of California at Berkeley. “No traffic light goes up, no street is paved, and no mail is collected in East Jerusalem unless Israel does so,” he told The Washington Post. “It’s unthinkable for a foreign entity to set up diplomatic offices without the permission of the ruling authority. The Israelis are the only such authority.”
Palestinians have “no de facto or de jure control, nor have they ever had such control” over the eastern section of the city, Hassner said.
After its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel declared sovereignty over Jerusalem after capturing the eastern part of the contested city from neighboring Jordan, thereby gaining control of the Old City and the surrounding Arab neighborhoods. To this day, East Jerusalem is viewed by most of the international community as occupied territory; for Palestinians, it would one day be the capital of their own nation.
In late 2017, President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This break from decades of U.S. foreign policy set in motion a series of events: The U.S. Embassy in Israel was moved from Tel Aviv (where nearly all embassies are located) to Jerusalem in 2018, and the consulate there that long handled Palestinian affairs was merged into the new embassy.
Just this week, figures instrumental in the decision to move the embassy gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the establishment of the Friedman Center for Peace Through Strength, named after Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Friedman, along with then-White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, helped broker the Abraham Accords that normalized Israel’s diplomatic relations with a number of Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The embassy move, which at the time entailed hanging a plaque on a wall at the consulate in Jerusalem, carried deep symbolic significance. Past U.S. presidential administrations withheld the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital so that it could be part of a final Israeli-Palestinian two-state agreement.
Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in Gaza City to protest the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem. In a phone call to Trump, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the U.S. decision “a declaration of withdrawal” from the peace talks. The militant group Hamas that effectively controls the Gaza Strip predicted that the “doors of hell” would open for U.S. interests.
The first U.S. consul to Jerusalem was appointed by President John Tyler in 1844, and a permanent mission was established a decade later. In the ensuing 170-or-so years, the consulate came to be viewed by Palestinians as an independent channel of communication with the State Department.
But, as Makovsky pointed out, “the symbolism of Jerusalem often overwhelms other considerations.”