Why Biden Should Reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem

After the damage of the Trump years, America needs to salvage its role as an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians.

President Joe Biden’s plan to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem—once a de facto embassy serving Palestinian interests—would be a major step after the Trump administration ruined America’s capacity to serve as an honest mediator in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. No wonder it’s meeting fierce resistance from Israel. In essence, the move would signal that Washington no longer plans to act as Israel’s faithful servant, as it did under the last president.

Israeli Prime Minster Naftali Bennett has said bluntly, “There is no place for an American consulate that serves the Palestinians in Jerusalem.” Indeed, the issue has already become a partisan flashpoint on Capitol Hill. A group of 200 Republican lawmakers in the House and 35 more in the Senate have objected to the plan, arguing that reopening the consulate would be inconsistent with American law by promoting a division of Jerusalem. Be that as it may, Biden would be wise to push forward. After the Trump years, the United States needs to prove, in action and not just words, that it can approach the conflict evenhandedly.

Former President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan strongly favored Israel, outraged the Palestinians, and upended decades of bipartisan U.S. policy aimed at finding a negotiated peace agreement between the two sides. In 2018, Trump closed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington, D.C., ended funding to the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees, moved the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and officially recognized Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is its eternal, undivided capital. That reversed the long-standing practice by the U.S. to keep its embassy in Tel Aviv—like most nations—and allow both parties to negotiate the final status of Jerusalem first. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in 1967 and later annexed, as the capital of their hoped-for future state.

After this cascade of events, prospects for peace talks, already tenuous in 2018, broke off completely. Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said America was no longer a neutral peace broker. In 2019, the U.S. closed its consulate on Agron Road in Jerusalem and moved staff to a section of the new embassy, essentially downgrading Palestinian interests and putting them under the authority of the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Jerusalem may be Israel’s capital, but it is still a divided city. Palestinians make up the majority in East Jerusalem and have endured discriminatory efforts that human rights groups say are intended to evict them to preserve a Jewish majority. Israel insists that evictions of Palestinian families are merely real estate disputes. Last spring, a spate of planned evictions helped spark an 11-day war in which Hamas-launched rockets, fired from Gaza, killed 13 Israelis, and Israeli strikes on Gaza killed more than 250 Palestinians and rendered thousands more homeless. Some real estate dispute.

Biden needs to undo the damage Donald Trump left behind and restore credibility to America’s role in the century-old conflict. It won’t be easy. “Although the Palestinian Authority elite looks at this issue as a test case for their future relations with the U.S., for most of the public, the U.S. policy will always be one-sided and biased in favor of Israel,” Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian professor of political science and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, told me in an email.

Biden will also have to transcend the partisan divisions that have emerged over the Israeli-Palestinian issue during the past 12 years. Indeed, the Republican Party has essentially become a mouthpiece for Israel’s right wing. Hence the GOP’s opposition to reopening the consulate.

U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem

A flag of the United States flies outside the then U.S. consulate building in Jerusalem, March 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

As the former U.S. diplomat Edward G. Abington told me, the Republicans’ reasoning against the move is specious. “I don’t see why reopening the consulate would call into question the U.S. belief that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” Abington, who served as the American consul general at the consulate in Jerusalem from 1993 to 1997, said. “The question is, what do you do about the Palestinians? Reopening the consulate at least keeps open the idea that the future of Jerusalem and the place of Palestinians in Jerusalem should still be subject to negotiations.”

Otherwise, the prospects for peace will remain bleak. The longer the two sides go without any hope for resuming talks, the more entrenched the occupation will become. The last Israeli government, for instance, expanded settlements after the Trump team, led by Jared Kushner, announced its plan, which allowed for large chunks of the West Bank to remain a part of Israel.

Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. The conflagration in May marked the fourth war between Israel and Hamas in 13 years. Tragically, it is only a matter of time before the next one.

Biden has an opportunity to try to break the gridlock. On Monday, his plan for the consulate got a boost from a nonpartisan group of more than 300 former generals and top security officials in Israel, who declared that the move would be in Israel’s vital national security interest. They argued that it would strengthen the Palestinian Authority, counter the influence of Hamas, and help restore “the bipartisan support we enjoyed until not too long ago” with American lawmakers.

Palestinians consider the reopening of the consulate the bare minimum. “The Biden administration should have done that immediately and focused instead on stopping Israel’s unprecedented settlement expansion, the land grab, and the housing evictions,” Ambassador Husam Zomlot, who headed the PLO Mission in D.C. that Trump closed, told me.

Some members of Congress want to go further. In September, Representative Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat, introduced the Two-State Solution Act, seeking to assure that American policies are truly aligned with the goal of a fair and equitable peace agreement. The bill allocates funding to “promote diplomacy and peacebuilding” and prohibits U.S. security assistance to Israel from going toward Israeli annexation of the West Bank. It would also reverse deleterious Trump policies, including by mandating the reopening the consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO mission in Washington. “This bill outlines actions the United States can and should take,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a pro-security, pro-peace advocacy group. “It is the most comprehensive and far-reaching bill ever introduced to make the United States an active partner in promoting a two-state solution in deed and not just in word.”

Unfortunately, the legislation has no chance of passage. Republicans and moderate Democrats simply won’t get behind it. That means Biden will have to do whatever is in his executive power to keep the hope of peace alive. A resolution to the conflict is not possible in the short term, but it is imperative to ensure that it remains possible in the long term—by creating the conditions, at least, for meaningful negotiations to happen down the road, and not allowing the situation to deteriorate beyond the point of no repair.

Reopening the consulate won’t save Israelis and Palestinians; only Israelis and Palestinians can do that. But it might one day make it easier for the U.S. to help them save themselves.

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Storer H. Rowley

Storer H. Rowley is a former national editor, editorial board member, and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He teaches journalism and communication at Northwestern University.