Jan 13, 2021 - World

Fate of U.S. consulate in Jerusalem uncertain as Biden takes office

The consulate in 2013. Photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Outgoing U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman made the case against reopening the U.S. consulate general in Jerusalem on Monday in a hearing of the foreign relations and security committee in the Israeli parliament.

Why it matters: During the election campaign, Biden said his administration would reopen the consulate, which had served as the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinians until it was shut down by the Trump administration and merged into the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.

  • That move would upgrade U.S. diplomatic representation to the Palestinian Authority and signal that the U.S. recognizes Palestinian claims to part of Jerusalem.
  • A request by Biden to reopen the consulate would have to be approved by the Israeli government, and could turn into a contentious domestic political issue in Israel. An Israeli refusal could create tensions with Biden.

Driving the news: According to Israeli lawmakers who attended Friedman’s briefing, the outgoing ambassador said that, based on State Department policy, the U.S. should not open a consulate in a city that already hosts an American embassy.

  • “This is a decision for the Israeli government to make. It’s for you to decide not for the U.S. administration," Friedman said at the hearing, according to one of the lawmakers who attended.  
  • Palestinian leaders cut off ties to Washington after Trump's embassy move, but are preparing a charm offensive for Biden in hopes that he'll reverse a number of Trump's policy, including over the consulate.
  • The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment for this story.

Flashback: The U.S. first opened a consulate in Jerusalem in 1844, when the city was part of the Ottoman empire. It continued through the British mandate and after the state of Israel was formed, at which time a U.S. embassy was also established in Tel Aviv.

  • In the 1990’s, after the Oslo Accords, the consulate became the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinian Authority, handling relations with the West Bank and Gaza.
  • In March 2019, the consulate was officially shut down and made a department of the newly inaugurated U.S. embassy to Israel.
  • The post of consul general was eliminated and U.S. diplomatic representation to the Palestinian Authority was downgraded. U.S. diplomats handling relations with the Palestinians had to report to Friedman, with no direct channel to Washington.

What’s next: This is one of several key topics of discussion inside the Israeli government as it prepares for Biden's administration to assume office.

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