Nov 10, 2021 - World

Biden's Jerusalem dilemma

An outside shot of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.

The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, Oct. 27. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration finds itself stuck between its pledge to the Palestinians to reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem and strong Israeli government opposition to this move.

Why it matters: Any decision by the Biden administration on this issue is likely to anger either Israel or the Palestinians and lead to tensions.

  • It's also almost certain to create political blowback for Biden — either from Republicans who oppose the move or from Democrats who want to see it happen.

Catch up quick: The consulate was for 25 years the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinian Authority, but it was shut down by former President Trump in 2019. During the election campaign, Biden promised to reopen it if he is elected.

  • When Secretary of State Tony Blinken visited Israel last May, he gave a private and public commitment to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the Biden administration is moving ahead with reopening the consulate.
  • The administration agreed to a request from the Israeli government that the issue not be pursued before the government's budget was passed in order to keep from destabilizing the fragile coalition. The Palestinians accepted this situation and agreed to wait.
  • During Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s visit to Washington last month, he told Blinken that Israel is opposed to reopening the consulate regardless of the budget. They agreed to form a team to discuss the issue.

Driving the news: The issue of the consulate came up during the visit of three Senate and House delegations to Jerusalem and Ramallah this week.

  • Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told a delegation led by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) that the Palestinians demand the U.S. reopen the consulate as it had promised.
  • Abbas said in a speech on Tuesday that the Biden administration committed to him more than once it will reopen the consulate and he expects that to happen.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told a Democratic congressional delegation on Tuesday that he understands the consulate was a Biden campaign promise and he's aware of the domestic political sensitivities in the Democratic party, but he wouldn’t allow the reopening of the diplomatic mission that serves the Palestinians in Israel’s capital, an Israeli official said.
  • “I am not going to make a campaign or try to score political points over this issue, but the government position is that reopening the consulate is unacceptable," Bennett told the delegation.

What they're saying: Former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron David Miller wrote in an op-ed this week that the last thing Biden wants or needs now is a fight with Israelis, Republicans and maybe even a few Democrats over Jerusalem. Biden, he wrote, might decide to renege on his promise.

  • Former U.S. Middle East envoy Martin Indyk tweeted that the Israeli government should make a gesture to Biden and allow the reopening of the consulate in exchange for a statement reiterating recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
  • “It would be a mistake to assume the US will quietly accept a rebuff of [Biden’s] specific request. The next time Israel needs something from the US it might receive the same treatment," he wrote.

What’s next: The Biden administration has not raised the issue again with the Israelis since the budget was passed. But it is likely to happen soon.

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