Senior U.S. officials have informed the Palestinian Authority that the American Consulate serving East Jerusalem is due to reopen as planned in several weeks, Palestinian officials told Haaretz.
Israel opposes the move, and Israeli officials are working to reverse the American decision.
The consulate served Palestinians from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, but was closed by the Trump administration in 2018.
President Joe Biden sought to reopen the consulate in order to improve ties with the Palestinian Authority, which were strained during the Trump presidency.
A senior Palestinian official told Haaretz that reopening the consulate is seen as an important move for the Palestinians, after the Trump administration moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He said Ramallah sees the consulate as a more important issue than reopening the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, ordered shut during the Trump presidency.
"In our view, the consulate is the seed of the American Embassy to the future Palestinian state and a statement about everything related to the administration’s position on Jerusalem," he said.
Sources in Ramallah said that the Biden administration wanted to wait with reopening the consulate until after the Israeli government manages to pass its annual budget, so that the politically explosive issue would not destabilize the fragile coalition. Two months ago, political sources gave Haaretz a similar reasoning as to why the move has not yet been completed.
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According to PA officials, officials in Washington have communicated to them that the U.S. State Department is now completing the processes necessary for reopening the consulate.
It remains unclear, according to the officials, whether the consulate would operate out of the Agron Road compound in West Jerusalem – which until early 2019, with the inauguration of the Jerusalem embassy, housed the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem – or a building on Nablus Road, in East Jerusalem, which had been the location of the U.S. Consulate before it was shuttered.
Israeli leaders and officials oppose the move, and one senior Israeli official who spoke with U.S. officials said he believes Washington will not follow through with the plan.
Other Israeli officials involved in talks about the issue were not as conclusive, but also said they don't think the American decision is final.
"Opening the consulate is an election promise of Biden's, and it'll be hard for him to backtrack from it, but this decision doesn't really interest the government," an Israeli official said. "The PA isn't really a meaningful actor these days."
He added, "The administration knows that opening the consulate will threaten the stability of the coalition in Israel. They already pushed back opening it until after the Israeli budget passed in order to prevent the government from collapsing, there's no reason they won't keep delaying it."
Another Israeli official said that alternatives were presented to Israel, including opening a consulate in Abu Dis outside of Israel's municipal authority, but they were not accepted. He added that "Perhaps other processes, such as a significant boost to the UNRWA budget, will help the Palestinians and Americans settle on it."
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said last month that reopening the consulate was a "bad idea," citing two reasons for Israel's opposition. First, he said, reopening it after it was already closed would "send a wrong message," and second, it might cause conflict within the governing coalition. "We have an interesting yet delicate structure of government, and we think this might destabilize this government," he said.
Days later, several leading Democratic senators who were visiting Israel stressed the need to re-open the consulate. "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," Sen. Chris Murphy said, noting that the consulate was open for over 100 years "before being cruelly shuttered by President Trump."
The administration had planned to announce the consulate’s reopening only after Israel’s government finished approving the state budget. But it realized that the first serious hurdle to passing the budget has already been crossed, and that a decision like opening the consulate wouldn’t undermine the governing coalition’s stability.
Nevertheless, officials in Ramallah also noted that while the talks with the administration have been very positive, no diplomatic initiative is visible on the horizon, so expectations are low. Aside from reopening the consulate, Ramallah is also talking with Washington about resuming American aid to the Palestinian Authority and getting Arab states to do the same – including Saudi Arabia, which halted aid under pressure from then-President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, after the Palestinians rejected the Trump administration’s peace plan out of hand.
Although restoring American aid is crucial for the ongoing activity of the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah has reiterated that the move doesn't promise anything politically. "On paper and in theory, the two-state solution exists, however realizing it is becoming less feasible every single day, which prompts the PA's leadership to make resolutions in the near future."
This article was amended on 4/10/2021.