Biden reiterates plan to reopen Jerusalem consulate despite Israeli objections
President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their White House meeting that he will not abandon his plan to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, setting up a major point of contention between the administrations.
Why it matters: The consulate handled relations with the Palestinians for 25 years before being shut down by Donald Trump. Senior officials in Bennett's government see the consulate issue as a political hot potato that could destabilize their unwieldy coalition.
Behind the scenes: Biden raised the consulate issue several times in his bilateral meeting with Bennett and in the expanded meeting with their aides, Israeli and U.S. officials briefed on the meetings tell me.
- Biden stressed that he made a campaign promise to reopen it and that Secretary of State Tony Blinken had already gone on the record with a pledge to follow through.
- Bennett made clear that he opposed that policy, but proposed that officials from both sides meet to work toward a solution.
Between the lines: Several right-wing ministers, including Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar, say the reopening of the consulate would be an infringement on Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. It's also a prime point of attack for Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now opposition leader.
- The Israeli government would have to give its approval for the consulate to be reopened. And if even one member were to defect over the issue, the government could collapse.
- “If the Biden administration wants to see Netanyahu abandoning his Pilates classes and going back to the Prime Minister’s Office, this is the best way to do it," one senior official quipped to me.
- The official said the Israelis had expressed their concerns about the destabilizing potential of the consulate issue several times to the Biden administration.
- The Biden administration previously agreed to delay the reopening of the consulate until after the Nov. 4 deadline for Bennett to pass a budget.
Flashback: Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 and later merged the consulate into the new U.S. Embassy there.
- The Palestinians also consider Jerusalem to be their capital. East Jerusalem, the location of the former consulate, is typically viewed as the future capital of any Palestinian state.
What they're saying: "Jerusalem is the capital of one country only: Israel. I don’t want to go into details, but this is my clear position," Bennett said last Friday in a Zoom call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
- But Bennett added that he wants a “no drama” relationship with the Biden administration and to solve things in the quietest way possible after the budget passes in November.
- The Palestinian Authority Foreign Ministry said the government's opposition over the consulate was a barrier to the peace process and part of Israel's efforts "to change the historical and legal status of the city."
- Last week, State Department spokesperson Ned Price stressed that Blinken’s commitment, made in May during a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, still stands. The White House declined to comment for this story.
What’s next: No steps are expected on this issue before November, meaning the sides have some time to work toward a mutually acceptable solution.