Biden should reconsider planned reversal of bipartisan US policy on Jerusalem

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The Biden administration is planning to open a new Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem — Israel’s capital and the location of the United States Embassy to Israel. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the decision as “an important way for our country to engage with and provide support to the Palestinian people,” and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said it was a step to “rebuild the relationship with the Palestinian leaders.” But such a move will have a profound impact on U.S.-Israel relations and Israeli sovereignty, and represents a much more consequential revision of U.S. policy than first meets the eye. 

Prior to 2018, the Embassy of the United States to Israel was in Tel Aviv, while a Consulate General in Jerusalem in effect served as a mission to the Palestinian Authority. In 2018, President Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. There is no case in the entire world where a consulate general exists in the same city as a U.S. embassy, and in 2019 all American diplomatic activity was consolidated into a single mission. This was logical, efficient, and followed the universal pattern; the U.S. Embassy opened a Palestinian Affairs Unit, and most of the staff from the former consulate general continued in the same jobs.

These actions followed President Trump’s official recognition of Jerusalem as the rightful capital of Israel in the first year of his presidency. The recognition represented the longstanding position of the U.S. government. In 1995, Congress had adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, stipulated that the capital should remain undivided, and identified funds for moving the embassy to Jerusalem. The legislation had overwhelming bipartisan support.

In the ensuing years, presidential candidates from both parties expressed their desire to implement the Act, but never followed through due to alarmist predictions that the move would spark violence and instability.

In short, the Trump administration finally put the Congressionally-mandated and long-promised position into practice: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and is and should remain an undivided city.

Opening a new U.S. consulate now is therefore a stark departure not merely from the Trump administration’s policies, but also from the consistent position of the U.S. government over many decades.

The move may in fact be illegal, and the United States likely needs permission from the Israeli government to proceed.

Most jarring, however, is that it amounts to a de facto division of Israel’s capital and represents a distinct infringement on the sovereign rights of the Israeli state. In simple terms, the Biden administration is seeking to open a diplomatic mission serving a foreign entity in what the United States now rightly recognizes as Israel’s capital city.

The consulate could instead be opened in Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered. The decision to open it in Jerusalem delivers a dangerous and ambiguous signal that this administration may well support a divided Jerusalem.

The fact that the United States is even considering such a move is another unfortunate example of Israel being held to a different and discriminatory standard by the international community. Other nations, including the United States, would not allow a foreign country to divide their capitals or open consulates therein serving a third party or foreign entity. We should not need reminding that Israel is a sovereign nation with the right to determine its own capital, just like any other country. The United States has historically been a voice against such discriminatory treatment of the Jewish state. It is therefore gravely concerning that in this latest case the United States is leading the charge.  

The Biden administration has at times seemed intent on reversing Trump administration policies regardless of the consequences. In this case, however, the Biden team would be reversing longstanding bipartisan U.S. policy and law — not to mention undermining the long overdue decision by a previous administration to fulfill promises made repeatedly.

The United States should respect Israel’s choice of Jerusalem as its capital and not make it the only place on earth where the United States places both its embassy and a permanent mission to a foreign entity in the capital of a sovereign state. That is precisely the kind of damaging and discriminatory treatment of Israel that Democrats and Republicans in Congress have long pledged to avoid and indeed to condemn.

Elliott Abrams is Chairman of the Board of the Vandenberg Coalition, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former Deputy National Security Advisor.

Dr. Amanda J. Rothschild is Senior Policy Director of the Vandenberg Coalition, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a former Special Assistant to the President.

Tags Antony Blinken Biden foreign policy Donald Trump International relations Israel Israel–United States relations Jen Psaki Jerusalem Jerusalem Embassy Act Joe Biden Palestinian National Authority Palestinian Territories Status of Jerusalem

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