Must a U.S. consulate be in Jerusalem?

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Historically, the Consulate General of the United States in Jerusalem was a U.S. diplomatic mission that provided consular services to Palestinian residents in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. It was not accredited to any government and was relatively non-controversial. It functioned in concert with the U.S. Embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv. When President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that the U.S. Embassy would be moved to Jerusalem, he also ordered the closure of the PLO’s office in D.C. Shortly thereafter, the consulate in Jerusalem was closed, and its functions were transferred to an office within the embassy.

Trump’s message was clear: Jerusalem was “off the table” for the purposes of negotiation, and Palestinian access to the Trump administration would be limited until they acceded to Trump’s view of how negotiations should proceed.

Now, the Biden administration wants to reopen the consulate as part of reestablishing ties with the Palestinians. We welcome the move as a way for the United States to rebuild trust among the Palestinians, facilitate communications with the Palestinian Authority and develop relations with young Palestinian leaders who will eventually succeed President Mahmoud Abbas.

While the re-opening appears to us to be the right move, the idea is not popular in Israel and is not supported by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, an annexationist who opposes anything that smacks of Palestinian sovereignty. Bennett’s coalition government, composed of widely divergent and potentially conflicting parties, has agreed to put areas of disagreement aside for the sake of its own survival. The consulate could be one of those divisive issues.

“We have an interesting yet delicate structure of our government,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in opposing the consulate, “and we think this might destabilize this government — and I don’t think the American administration wants this to happen.”

Lapid is right. Biden and Bennett may differ on the question of the consulate, but they share the objective of keeping Israel’s current government in place. For Biden, that means not pushing Bennett so hard that his fragile coalition collapses. For Bennett, that means overlooking as much as he can to avoid a government crisis.

The delicate dynamic of opposing views and mutual interests suggest a possible compromise. If the purpose for a U.S. consulate is to facilitate communication with the Palestinian population and leadership, it would make sense to open the consulate somewhere central to the Palestinian population, selecting a location which avoids subliminal messaging that creates conflict. For those purposes, East Jerusalem is probably not the best location.

While there is nothing wrong with a consulate in Jerusalem, it doesn’t have to be there. Relocating the consulate to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, for example, would put the United States in the heart of Palestinian turf and send a clear message of engagement and support. Moreover, the move should have no impact on Jerusalem’s final status in any upcoming negotiations, since any line drawing and positioning of the parties will be driven by much more significant issues than the location of the U.S. consulate.

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