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Trump's Legacy at the Jerusalem Consulate

Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar
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A U.S. flag flies at the United States consulate building in Jerusalem, in 2019.
A U.S. flag flies at the United States consulate building in Jerusalem, in 2019.Credit: Ariel Schalit /AP
Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar

If we ignored Donald Trump’s terrorism campaign against America’s democracy and the stench from Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial for a moment, it could have been Trump coming this week to meet with Netanyahu.

When it comes to the triad of American-Israeli-Palestinian relations, President Joe Biden is maintaining his predecessor’s legacy. The list of “achievements” cited by Shimrit Meir, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s former adviser, is an inheritance from the Trump administration.

In an interview with Nadav Eyal in Yedioth Ahronoth, Meir, an Arab affairs expert, boasted that “this government didn’t open the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem.” Who closed the consulate? Trump. Then she proudly told Eyal that even though the Israeli government “suffered greatly from the Americans over it,” Israel continued construction in the West Bank exactly as it did under Trump.

The outgoing government has also made “enormous investments in the Golan Heights.” It would be interesting to know how much it spent on the new planned Golan community of Trump Heights. And then, of course, there’s Meir’s statement that “we held up the deal with Iran.” Thank Trump for bringing us to this point, within touching distance of an Iranian nuclear bomb.

But nothing better demonstrates the similarity between Biden’s policy and that of his predecessor than the story of the American consulate in Jerusalem. Meir’s boast about having thwarted its reopening shows that even with a magnifying glass, it’s hard to discern the differences between the Bennett-Lapid government’s policy and Netanyahu’s approach.

During Biden’s presidential campaign, he publicly promised that the day after entering the White House, he would reopen the consulate. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that after taking office. But as Meir noted, the Israeli government has managed to thwart the move. If there’s no surprising plot twist, Biden will put the orphaned consulate behind him, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will leave his Ramallah meeting with the American president empty-handed.

We should remember that this isn’t some regular consular office. It deals with issuing visas and visits to prisoners. The Jerusalem consulate hadn’t been the responsibility of the American ambassador to Israel, rather it reported directly to the State Department. So closing the consulate was tantamount to closing an embassy.

Ever since Israel captured the territories in 1967, consular staffers have played a key role in protecting the rights of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Even when relations between Washington and Ramallah were at a low, the consulate remained in touch with the Palestinian Authority, managing and even heading off security crises.

Quite a few Israelis owe their lives to the consulate in Jerusalem. And Palestinians and Israelis (including some settlement leaders) used to celebrate the Fourth of July together in the garden of the beautiful building on Agron Street.

The decision to close the consulate wasn’t born in the White House. The settlers’ ambassador to Washington – David Friedman – whose official title was U.S. ambassador to Israel – was the one to convince Trump to get the consulate out of the way of residents of illegal settlement outposts.

The settlers longed to get rid of the American diplomats who roamed around and reported on their actions. In an interview with the Times of Israel website, Friedman said the diplomats who asked to be stationed at the consulate tended to be more sympathetic to the Palestinians.

I had the privilege of knowing three American consuls in Jerusalem well. And indeed, all of them, unlike Friedman, showed empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians and did their best to reduce violations of their rights. All were loyal to the policy of successive American governments, which advocated and still advocate a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders and oppose the settlement enterprise.

America had no diplomatic interest in closing the consulate and no interest in delaying its reopening, aside from a desire to avoid undermining the Bennett-Lapid government and providing Netanyahu with ammunition. Yet even as the U.S. administration has refrained from appointing a consul in Jerusalem, it went out of its way to persuade members of the outgoing Knesset to pass a law intended to give Israelis visa-free entry to the United States. The opposition, led by Netanyahu, thwarted this effort.

After Trump was forced to shut the White House gate behind him, he discovered that he too had fallen victim to Netanyahu’s appetite for freebies. In an interview with Barak Ravid, Trump said, “I don’t think Bibi ever wanted to make peace ... I think he just tapped us along. Just tap, tap, tap, you know?”

The closure of the consulate – like the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, the Abraham Accords and U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan – were meant to help Netanyahu swallow Trump’s “deal of the century” for peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu sold him a bill of goods. Biden swallowed it, and Yair Lapid and Bennett are licking their lips. But Israelis and Palestinians have been left with a bellyache. Please, Mr. Biden, open the consulate. Don’t be a Trump.

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