The Biden administration’s new envoy to the Palestinians declared Wednesday that the US still plans to reopen its consulate in Jerusalem after nearly two years of delays, but Israeli and Palestinian officials did not appear convinced.
Asked for his response to US Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr’s renewed pledge, a senior Palestinian official speaking on condition of anonymity chuckled. “At this point, we don’t get excited over these kinds of declarations from the Americans,” he said. “With all due respect, we’ll respond when there are facts on the ground.”
Prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has avoided commenting on Amr’s remarks, ostensibly waiting until he is sworn into office, but an official in the Likud leader’s inner circle told The Times of Israel that his boss’s position on the matter has not changed, confirming a report in the Makor Rishon news site.
After vowing during the campaign to reopen the de facto mission to the Palestinians, which his predecessor Donald Trump shuttered in 2019, US President Joe Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken informed Netanyahu in May 2021 that Washington wanted to follow through on the pledge.
The then-prime minister responded by voicing his opposition to the proposal. Netanyahu and other opponents to reopening the consulate have argued that it encroaches on Israeli sovereignty in the city — the eastern portion of which the Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state.
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The Biden administration did not move on the matter following Netanyahu’s refusal. And if the Democratic president’s hesitance to enter public spats with Israel guided his policy then, that inclination was boosted in the year that followed, when Israel was governed by a unity government led by prime ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.
File: Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (third from L) meets with a US delegation that includes Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (4th from right), Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert (third from right) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr (2nd from right) in Tel Aviv, on April 21, 2022. (David Azoulay/US Embassy in Israel)
The Biden administration, recognizing that Bennett and Lapid’s politically diverse coalition was better placed to advance measures for the Palestinians than the hardline alternative presented by Netanyahu, gave them a sympathetic ear when they asked not to be pressured to take certain controversial steps — like reopening the consulate — they claimed could destabilize their government.
Ensuring the stability of Netanyahu’s incoming hardline coalition is not likely to be as high of a priority for the Biden administration, to the extent that the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday that the US might now be emboldened to finally make do on its pledge to reopen the consulate if and when the new Israeli government enacts antagonistic policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
Some degree of Israeli approval for reopening the consulate will be required, given that the mission sits on what the Jewish state insists is its sovereign territory. Whether Israel would really move to block the reopening or reject the credentials of a consul general from a country that gives it billions in aid is another question.
A US official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel not to expect a shift in Biden’s stance against butting heads publicly with Israel on such an issue. Washington will continue to insist that it wants to reopen the consulate and “will do so when the conditions are right,” the official said.
Even Amr appeared to qualify his position during his Wednesday briefing. After doubling down on the pledge and saying that he would be discussing with Israeli and Palestinian officials a timeline for its implementation, the US envoy added, “At the same time, we right now have a dedicated team of colleagues on the ground working in Jerusalem at our Office of Palestinian Affairs focused every single day on engagement with an outreach to the Palestinians.”
The Office of Palestinian Affairs is a department within the US Embassy in Jerusalem. It was moved under the auspices of the embassy when Trump shuttered the consulate and it was rebranded earlier this year in what analysts saw as a compromise that the Biden administration settled on to avoid a public conflict with Israel.