US should not reopen the Jerusalem consulate
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Tuesday that the United States would reopen a consulate in Jerusalem to upgrade its contacts with the Palestinians. Respectfully, that is a huge mistake. A consulate to the Palestinians anywhere is inappropriate; in Jerusalem it also is illegal.
Two preliminary issues need to be addressed and explained. The first is to define what a consulate is. Simply put, it is a satellite office to an embassy located outside the capital city of a country, one that exists almost exclusively to provide visas and passports to people for whom a trip to the embassy is too far a distance. The second issue is why there was a consulate in Jerusalem in the first place. The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem is an anachronism: It was established by American Christian Zionists in 1844 — 104 years before the establishment of the state of Israel and when Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire — to facilitate the return of Jewish people to Jerusalem. It was not established as a mission to the Palestinians but morphed into that function after the failed Oslo Accords of 1994.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo closed the Jerusalem consulate in 2019 for several reasons, one of which is foundational and unrelated to policy. With the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem in 2018, there was no basis for a consulate to exist. The Jerusalem embassy provides consular services on a non-discriminatory basis to all Israelis and Palestinians — equal treatment for Jews, Christians and Muslims. The consulate thus became obsolete and a waste of taxpayer dollars. I know of no other country where the United States maintains an embassy and a consulate in the same city.
Some argue for the reopening of the consulate in Jerusalem just for the purpose of engaging in diplomacy with the Palestinians and signaling a willingness by America to recognize, in the future, a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. That would be illegal and unwise.
It would be illegal because the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, passed overwhelmingly by both the U.S. House and the Senate, provides that “Jerusalem should remain an undivided city.” A U.S. consulate in Jerusalem to a foreign body clearly runs afoul of American law.
It would be unwise for a host of reasons. First, the opening of the consulate would require Israeli approval. But Israel declared sovereignty over all of Jerusalem in 1967 and no Israeli leader — right, center or left — will have the popular approval to endorse such a division of Israel’s capital. The proposed opening thus needlessly puts the United States on a collision course with Israel on one of the Jewish state’s core principals, reflected in its national anthem, “to be a free nation in the land of Zion, Jerusalem.”
It also would be unwise because the location of the consulate in Jerusalem will be perceived as a de facto location of a future embassy. That would be a huge and unwarranted gift to the Palestinian leadership who continue to pay terrorists in violation of American law and universal principles of morality, and who otherwise show none of the attributes necessary for non-threatening peaceful coexistence within the region. It will set forth facts on the ground that will guarantee the failure of future peace negotiations.
It also would be unwise because when the Jerusalem consulate was operating, it was a perpetual cause of friction with the U.S. Embassy to Israel and confusion with respect to American policy. Long before I arrived on the scene, the consulate was a hotbed for some anti-Israel ideologues (certainly not all U.S. foreign service officers but a significant number) who operated within a small bubble in the State Department, unaccountable to the larger foreign policy establishment, and who frequently clashed with embassy personnel. Indeed, the consul general in Jerusalem was selected by a State Department committee and was not subject to Senate confirmation. In contrast, the ambassador to Israel is appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation and extensive congressional oversight.
I experienced this friction on numerous occasions. For example, when the Jerusalem consulate staff had responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza, it outlawed embassy personnel from traveling to Jewish communities in the West Bank but permitted travel to Bethlehem and Jericho. It claimed this was a non-ideological decision based solely upon security considerations. That was nonsense; there was no credible position that Bethlehem was safer for U.S. travel than, say, Maale Adumim, a Jerusalem suburb. We fixed that practice when the consulate closed. There also was the time when, just prior to former President Trump’s arrival in Jerusalem in 2017, a consulate officer, frustrated with his engagement with the Shin Bet on how to provide a video feed for the president’s visit to the Western Wall, blurted out that the Shin Bet should stand down because the Wall was “illegally occupied territory.” That eruption led the news the day before President Trump arrived and did great damage to our diplomatic efforts.
Once Secretary Pompeo closed the Jerusalem consulate, the U.S. diplomatic mission in Israel spoke with one voice, consistently and effectively. We opened a Palestinian Affairs Unit comprised of highly skilled American, Israeli and Palestinian personnel who maintained contact with Palestinian civil society and provided valuable insights to decision makers. And we stopped wasting taxpayer dollars on duplicative, unhelpful efforts.
The Palestinian leadership never comes to Jerusalem; its government convenes in Ramallah. If America wants to signal increased engagement with the Palestinians, perhaps something short of a consulate located in Ramallah might be appropriate. Anything more would constitute an act in violation of law and a step backwards in the quest for regional peace.
David Friedman is the former United States Ambassador to Israel.