An American consulate in East Jerusalem would preserve a two-state solution

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As tensions grow over the Biden administration’s decision to reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, there is a simple solution that, unusual for this conflict, could be a win-win all around. That solution is to reopen an American consulate located deep in East Jerusalem. This would satisfy the goal of reopening the consulate as a means of re-engaging with the Palestinians. It also sends an important message about America’s commitment to preserving a two-state solution, including in Jerusalem. And, if done well, it might be a solution that the Israeli government could swallow — and even embrace.

Carving out a solution to the consulate issue — and for the conflict, in general — requires abandoning decades of constructive ambiguity that has proved to be destructive. It is time to inject some constructive specificity into policymaking, such as acknowledging that the American consulate and the consulates of other countries represent de facto embassies to the Palestinians. The problem is that all these countries maintain these consulates in direct contradiction to their professed policy of supporting a two-state solution to the conflict.

The U.S. is the only country that could point to consistent policymaking in reopening its consulate in East Jerusalem. The reason is that the other countries with consulates in Jerusalem continue to place their embassies to the State of Israel in Tel Aviv — a wonderful city but decidedly not Israel’s capital. By maintaining their embassies in Tel Aviv, these countries refuse to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. They maintain the fiction that Jerusalem forms a separate body — a Corpus Separatum — under no one’s sovereignty, as proposed by the United Nations General Assembly in its 1947 partition proposal. 

Yet these countries pursue an entirely incoherent foreign policy. They profess to support a two-state solution. They call East Jerusalem “Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Some of them, such as Sweden, even bilaterally recognize Palestine as an already existing state. But if the eastern part of Jerusalem is Palestinian, then surely the western part — which no one contests and is home to no holy sites — is Israeli.

To have any coherence in pursuit of a two-state solution, the policy of foreign countries toward  Jerusalem should be determined either by the 1947 proposal or by 1967, the “Green Line.” If it is 1947, neither Israelis nor Palestinians have any claim to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is then not Israel’s capital to these countries, but also no part of it is “Occupied Palestinian Territory.” It means no country should have consulates, representations or de facto embassies anywhere in Jerusalem. If the 1949 ceasefire guides policy, then the western part is recognized as Israel’s capital and all embassies should be moved there, and the eastern part as Occupied Palestinian Territory and de facto embassies to Palestine could be stationed there.

What makes no sense is the policy pursued by most countries, whereby Israel is judged by 1947 and Palestinians by 1967. Most countries deny recognition of Israel’s capital in any part of Jerusalem — but they effectively recognize Palestinian claims to the eastern part by positioning de facto embassies to Palestine in Jerusalem.

Only the U.S. could claim to pursue a coherent policy in Jerusalem if it re-opens the consulate, given that it has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and placed its embassy there. The only caveat — and it is a big one — is that the U.S. should absolutely not reopen the consulate in its old Agron Road location, well within west Jerusalem. Reopening a de facto American embassy to Palestine in western Jerusalem would send a terrible message that this part of Jerusalem is somehow contested. That is a view held only by those who want the State of Israel to disappear. No Israeli government, on the left or the right, could consent to such an act. No one truly seeking peace would knowingly pursue it.  

In recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Trump administration made it clear that this does not mean recognizing the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and that the final borders of Jerusalem are to be negotiated in a conflict-ending agreement. All genuine supporters of two states understand that a large part of the territory that is East Jerusalem today would be part of the State of Palestine and would form its capital. East Jerusalem is a vast territory that consists of approximately 70 square miles of Arab villages annexed to the city in 1968 to surround and buffer the emotionally, historically and religiously significant 1 square mile of the Old City of Jerusalem and its immediate environs. The Jewish people, whether in Israel or around the world, have no emotional connection to the Arab villages that have become East Jerusalem through this massive annexation.

By opening a consulate deep in East Jerusalem in one of the Arab villages that are now city neighborhoods, the U.S. could make a serious, thoughtful contribution to delineating the contours of a two-state solution. It would make it clear that specific borders should be negotiated, and that Palestine should have a capital in the Arab neighborhoods that are within Jerusalem’s municipal borders. Of course, the deeper in East Jerusalem the location, the more palatable it would be to the Israeli government. And the U.S. could make this even more agreeable to the Israeli government by calling on other countries to move their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Reopening the consulate at Agron would undermine these goals. It would bring into question the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, because what kind of country opens a de facto embassy to another country in the middle of one country’s capital? It would undermine any notion that future borders should be negotiated, because if even non-holy, pre-1967 West Jerusalem is contested, then the issue is not borders but Israel’s very existence.

It is a rare thing that, in matters involving Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is a solution that could work for all. Reopening the U.S. Consulate deep in East Jerusalem meets the American goal of re-engaging with the Palestinians and reinforces the contours of the two-state solution. It affords the Israeli government a win by moving the American consulate from its previous location in West Jerusalem to the east and calling on other countries to follow suit by moving their embassies to Jerusalem. 

Most importantly, it allows the U.S. to demonstrate policy leadership by highlighting a consistent, logical foreign policy in Jerusalem that truly promotes a two-state solution. Such opportunities for foreign policymaking in the pursuit of peace do not come along often.

Einat Wilf, PhD, the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Visiting Israeli Professor at Georgetown University, is a former Israeli politician who served as a member of the Knesset for Independence and the Labor Party. She is the co-author of “The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream as Obstructed the Path to Peace.” Follow her on Twitter @EinatWilf.

Tags Corpus separatum Israeli–Palestinian conflict Israeli–Palestinian peace process Jerusalem Palestinian nationalism

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