Jun 9, 2022 - World

State Department separates Palestinian office from U.S. Embassy to Israel

Palestinian and U.S. flags

Photo: Alex Brandon/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has rolled back a Trump administration decision to place the department that deals with the Palestinians within the U.S. Embassy to Israel, the State Department said Thursday.

Why it matters: The move carries symbolic meaning by differentiating the U.S.-Israel relationship and the U.S.-Palestinian relationship. It also comes ahead of President Biden's expected trip to the region next month and as his administration seeks to reassure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that it is committed to the Palestinians.

  • The Biden administration still wants to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem that was the U.S. diplomatic mission to the Palestinian Authority for 25 years until it was closed by the Trump administration in 2019.
  • Israel vehemently opposes the idea of reopening the consulate. But the Biden administration sees separating the Palestinian affairs office from the U.S. Embassy to Israel as a small first step in that direction, sources say.

Flashback: When the Trump administration moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and later closed the consulate in Jerusalem, then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman wanted to downgrade the U.S. diplomatic representation to the Palestinians, subjugate it to the U.S. ambassador to Israel and wipe out any Palestinian sovereignty symbols mainly in Jerusalem, two former Trump administration officials said.

  • The U.S. diplomats who worked at the consulate began working for “The Palestinian Affairs Unit” at the Embassy to Israel. The diplomats' direct reporting channel to Washington was canceled and they had to get Friedman's approval on cables they wanted to send to the State Department and other government agencies.
  • That meant the Palestinian point of view was sometimes marginalized in the reporting to Washington and critical reports about Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem went through the filter of the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Driving the news: On Wednesday, the internal procedures at the State Department changed and the diplomats at the “Palestinian Affairs Unit” at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem stopped reporting to the U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, sources told Axios.

  • The independent channel of reporting was re-established and the U.S. diplomats who deal with the Palestinians will now report directly to Washington and get their instructions directly from the Near East Affairs Bureau at the State Department and not from the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
  • On Thursday morning, the Twitter account of the "Palestinian Affairs Unit" changed to "The Office of Palestinian Affairs" (OPA), and its affiliation with the U.S. embassy to Israel was taken out of its description.

What they're saying: "The OPA operates under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, and reports on substantive matters directly to the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau in the State Department. It continues to be led in Jerusalem by the Chief of the Office, George Noll," a spokesperson for the OPA said in a statement.

  • "The new OPA reporting structure is designed to strengthen our diplomatic reporting and public diplomacy engagement," the spokesperson added.

A State Department official said in a statement that the U.S. remains "committed to re-opening our consulate in Jerusalem. We continue to believe it is an important way for our country to engage with and provide support to the Palestinian people."

  • "We are continuing to discuss this with our Israeli and Palestinian partners," the official added. "Meanwhile, we have a dedicated team of colleagues working in Jerusalem in our Office of Palestinian Affairs, focused on engagement with and outreach to the Palestinians."

Behind the scenes: Israeli officials said the State Department notified Israel and the Palestinian Authority in advance of the change. Israel did not object, the officials added.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated with the statement from the State Department.

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