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It’s Just a Consulate: Why the Latest Israeli-U.S. Spat Is Pointless and Useless

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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The U.S. consulate building in Jerusalem two years ago.
The U.S. consulate building in Jerusalem two years ago.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Quietly, and mostly away from the public eye, an unnecessary and avoidable confrontation is brewing between Israel and the United States over an American decision concerning the reopening of a consulate in Jerusalem.

To oversimplify things, why should Israel seriously care if the U.S. reopens a consulate? How insecure are you in your own capital and strength when you resist a simple request from your greatest ally? So what if the U.S. sets up its Palestinian affairs and Palestinian Authority operations from within the consulate? Wouldn’t that be considered prejudging the future of Jerusalem and effectively recognizing Palestinian rights?

On the flip side, why wouldn’t the U.S. simply open a consulate inside the West Bank and respect Israeli sensitivities? Is it such a big deal and political statement to do so in West Jerusalem? For what purpose exactly?

Israel is objecting to the idea for largely irrelevant reasons and for domestic political consumption, while the U.S. is insisting on proceeding for largely irrelevant reasons. As for the Palestinians, they will always seize on irrelevant reasons to cry foul.

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Despite the sanctimonious declarations in Israel on how the U.S. is allegedly reneging on its commitment to a unified city under Israel sovereignty and despite U.S. insistence that this is some kind of meaningful political move that President Joe Biden wants done, the quarrel is essentially a “Seinfeld”-like episode about nothing.

The problem, however, is that nothing in Jerusalem is ever about nothing, and everything in Jerusalem has a built-in escalation device.

A U.S. consulate in Jerusalem does not impinge on Israeli claims to a united city under its sovereignty, nor does it signal a U.S. endorsement of a partitioned city.

Jerusalem will not be partitioned – if not for political or religious reasons, then surely for logistical, transportational, commercial and economic ones. It is certainly not a politically “united” city, but that does not mean it will be split into two cities. This is just not feasible.

The U.S., for its part, could easily reopen a consulate in either Ramallah or Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. In the event that there is a peace process and parts of East Jerusalem are proclaimed as the capital of a newly established Palestinian state, by joint consent, the U.S. can then open an embassy. So why wade through this minefield now?

All the key and explosive terms concerning Jerusalem have already been floated in the holy air and in abundance: “eternal,” “capital,” “united,” “indivisible,” “3,000 years,” “sovereignty,” “two states,” “Palestinian state.”

Right-wing Israelis protesting outside the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem last month.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

Except that none of these words is relevant to this current disagreement.

In fact, all it does is relitigate the issue of Jerusalem as the contentious, unsolvable issue it has always been, and highlights how intricate and intractable it is – particularly at a time when there is no “peace process” or political plan, not even the semblance of one, and very little goodwill between Israel and the Palestinians.

The United States has had a consulate in Jerusalem since 1844 when the 10th president, John Tyler, personally nominated the first U.S. consul general in Jerusalem. First located within the Old City, the consulate relocated to its current location of 18 Agron Street, West Jerusalem, in 1912. Since the Oslo Accords of 1993 and ensuing relations between the Americans and the PA, the consulate became a de-facto U.S. embassy for the Palestinians despite its location in West Jerusalem.

Then came the U.S.’ 2017 decision to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the consulate, which was not under the embassy’s jurisdiction but subordinated directly to the State Department, would be merged with the newly relocated embassy when it opened in May 2018.

By relocating the U.S. Embassy, a long overdue decision since the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act (a move that had been deferred annually by successive presidents signing waivers on grounds of national security), then-President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. U.S. policy on the city’s “Corpus separatum” status – stemming from UN Resolution 181 (the partition plan of November 1947) – was now reversed, though the U.S. left the future of the city to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

But contrary to what Israel claimed and liked to believe, Trump did not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the entire “unified” city. Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was “nothing more or less than a recognition of reality,” Trump said in December 2017. But in a speech in January 2020, detailing his Mideast peace plan, he stated that “this map will more than double the Palestinian territory and provide a Palestinian capital in eastern Jerusalem, where America will proudly open an embassy.”

The language in the Jerusalem Embassy Act, emphasizing the indivisibility of the city and recognizing the spiritual and historical centrality and importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, is strong and unequivocal. However, it does not predetermine the final status of the city.

This is an entirely avoidable spat that neither Israel nor the Americans benefit from. Would Israel risk open confrontation with the United States if President Biden is insistent on reopening the consulate? Legally, Israel has to consent to the move, but why put yourself in that situation politically?

The Biden administration surely doesn’t want the Israeli coalition government to spiral into crisis, so why put it in that position?

And all this against the background of no Israeli-Palestinian political process and minimal U.S. interest in mediating one. So what’s the point?

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