The U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem said on Thursday that it had been redesignated and will report directly to Washington "on substantive matters," signaling an upgrade in ties ahead of a planned visit by President Joe Biden.
The former "Palestinian Affairs Unit" (PAU) was renamed the "U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs" (OPA) under the move. Prior to becoming the PAU, it had been the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem and a focus of Palestinian statehood goals in the city.
Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, outraged Palestinians by formally closing the consulate and redesignating it as the PAU within the U.S. Embassy that was moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2018.
"The OPA operates under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, and reports on substantive matters directly to the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau in the State Department," a spokesperson for the mission said.
"The name change was done to better align with State Department nomenclature," the spokesperson said. "The new OPA operating structure is designed to strengthen our diplomatic reporting and public diplomacy engagement."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken previously updated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the planned move – a missive from the U.S. administration to boost ties with the Palestinian Authority and provide a tangible delivery ahead of Biden's anticipated visit to the region.
The Palestinian Authority has not yet officially responded yet to the renaming, but senior Palestinian officials said that this attests to the administration’s weakness, not its strength.
The name change came up in recent talks between senior Palestinian and American officials, and sources say the Palestinians were not enthusiastic about it. They considered the shift to be nothing more than an administrative one, and that it indicates the extent to which the Biden administration is unwilling to initiate significant operative moves.
Palestinians will now report directly to State Department envoy Hady Amr, whom Palestinian officials were scheduled to host Thursday in Ramallah, rather than reporting to U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides. The United States hopes this change will buoy the Palestinians to distinguish between American diplomats serving Israel and the Palestinians, the latter of whom would report directly to Washington. This would also lead, in the Biden administration's point of view, to Palestinian perspectives having more independence from Israel.
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But according to a senior Palestinian official who was privy to talks at the Palestinian Authority, officials have indicated that changing names or splitting up offices were not alternatives to its promise last year of reopening a consulate in East Jerusalem, which it still has yet to do.
Israel has said it would not consent to this and proposed that a consulate be opened in Ramallah instead. The United States, meanwhile, has maintained it still intends on reopening the consulate, though Israel has drawn an explicit line in the sand on the matter. It has become a domestic political football for Biden — one that he will likely not seek to engage with ahead of the critical 2022 midterm elections.
Under the Trump-era redesignation, the former consulate's staff and functions remained largely identical, but they were subordinate to the embassy rather than on a strict U.S.-Palestinian bilateral track.
The Palestinian Authority has also expressed anger in recent meetings that the Biden administration was not officially distancing itself from Trump’s peace plan and that it was failing to urge Arab countries, and particularly Gulf states, to promote economic assistance to the Authority.
According to one source, the Trump administration, and mainly Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, agreed with Arab states to freeze any aid to the Authority as a means of pressuring Palestinian leaders to accept the “deal of the century.” To date, this decision is still in effect, leaving any aid from Gulf states in suspension.
“When a power such as the U.S. needs Israel’s approval in order to promote the opening of a consulate or to unfreeze economic aid, the problem seems to be with the administration, not with Israel,” said this source.
Israel's Foreign Ministry declined comment on Thursday's redesignation of the Jerusalem mission.