The United States reopening its consulate in Jerusalem was supposed to be low-hanging fruit for the Biden administration’s Israeli-Palestinian policy. After all, President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken publicly committed to the reopening, with Blinken reconfirming the decision during an Oct. 13 press conference at the State Department with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan: “We’ll be moving forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of deepening of those ties with the Palestinians.”
However, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Lapid privately and then publicly during a joint press conference in Israel on Nov. 6 opposed the consulate reopening. At the same time in Washington, House Republicans wrote a letter Nov. 4 expressing “strong opposition,” and on Nov. 17, they introduced legislation that has the backing of the GOP leadership and about 100 co-sponsors aimed at blocking the Biden administration from reopening the consulate.
Thus, low-hanging fruit has ripened into a full-blown controversy, perhaps also with the nefarious aid of 320 fake Facebook accounts amplifying opposition.
However, amid all the debating, pontificating and handwringing over this issue, one consideration that ought to be of paramount concern for Israel and its supporters in the United States has not received attention: What is the impact of reopening or not reopening the consulate in Jerusalem on Israel’s national security?
Answering this question requires examining the effects in three contexts: on Israel’s strategic relationship with the United States; on the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s governance capacity, counterterrorism efforts, and security coordination with Israel’s security forces; and on the future of Jerusalem.
Regarding the first, careful consideration should be given to the effect of opposing the American move to reopen the consulate on Israel’s strategic relationship with the United States, especially at a time when Israel’s leaders are united in the wish to restore the bipartisan support Israel enjoyed in the United States until not too long ago, a critical component in the Israel’s national security posture.
Established in 1844, the U.S. consulate operated continuously for 170 years, serving the Palestinians until two years ago, when former U.S. President Donald Trump closed it. Yet since 1967, no Israeli government – not even one led by Benjamin Netanyahu — saw any problem with its existence.
Now the costs and benefits of opposing reactivating the consulate must be carefully calculated, taking two recent developments in Washington into account. The first is an American president who has a four-decade record of solid pro-Israel voting such that even Israeli hardliners have been careful not to question his support of Israel. The second factor is a Congress that just approved an additional $1 billion dollars for Iron Dome replenishment (above and beyond the annual $3.8 billion). Israel should be careful not to take steps that smack of being ungrateful for this vote. Moreover, no matter the outcome of the 2022 midterm elections in the United States, Israel’s diverse leadership will remain steadfast in its resolve to undo the damage their predecessor governments led by Netanyahu wrought by a decade-long investment in one party in Washington, thereby jeopardizing bipartisan support for Israel.
One more factor in the cost-benefit calculation for reopening the consulate is that this move is bound to upgrade the U.S.-PA dialogue, thereby enhancing Washington’s capacity to affect PA policies on matters of importance to Israel.
As to the second context, the Palestinian Authority’s security agencies are credited by Israel’s own domestic security agency Shin Bet and by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) with having saved the lives of countless Israelis. That the PA functions well is in Israel’s national security interest and serves other national interests as well. Few political or diplomatic measures that have no security downside for Israel can make a greater contribution to strengthening the stature of the PA among Palestinians, stabilize its governance capacity and hence secure the continuity of Palestinian security coordination with Israel more than reopening the American consulate.
`Shrinking the Conflict’
In fact, recognition of the PA’s value has been at the root of what Israel’s prime minister, foreign minister, and minister of defense have dubbed a policy of “shrinking the conflict” and “strengthening the PA.”
In line with that understanding, the Israeli government has already taken steps to prevent the economic collapse of the PA and improve the overall economic situation on the West Bank. These have included offering the PA a bridging loan of some $150 million, and increasing the number of security-vetted Palestinians working in Israel by some 15,000. And, at the biannual conference of nations that contribute to the Palestinian Authority that convened in Oslo, Norway, November 16-18, Israel called for increasing financial aid to the PA Furthermore, due to an apparent concern with the diminishing support for the PA among its constituents, particularly for Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli government has taken steps to reverse that decline, including by resolving the lack of legal status of thousands of Palestinians and issuing some building permits for Palestinians in Area C (which covers some 60 percent of the West Bank). The latter was most surprising to some, given Prime Minister Bennett’s commitment, made long before assuming office, to annex that area in its entirety.
However, given Hamas’s increasing strength and popularity in the West Bank and the PA’s weakness, these and similar measures, while constructive, are hardly enough to strengthen the PA, ensure its security agencies’ coordination with Israel’s, or secure overall stability. Economic measures alone will not suffice. For Palestinians to stand with the PA rather than support Hamas or more extreme terror organizations, they need evidence that the PA serves more than its leaders or worse yet, the Israeli occupation. And for that to happen, the promise of statehood – however remote – is essential. As the current Israeli coalition cannot agree on offering that political horizon, those in the regional and international community who support a negotiated two-state outcome to the conflict – first and foremost, the United States — need to demonstrate that endorsing that concept is not lip service. Re-opening the consulate conveys that message.
The third context, the effect on the future of Jerusalem, points out how we Israelis tend to artificially inflate issues to existential proportions. It was not the existence of the consulate that divided Jerusalem. Its closure did not unite the city. Nor will its renewal affect in any way the freedom of sovereign decisions this or future governments make regarding the fate of the city.
Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that concurring with the Biden administration’s wish to renew consulate operations would advance Israel’s national security interest, given its positive effect on the stability of the PA and its security coordination with Israeli forces, and on the strategic objective of restoring bipartisan support for Israel in Washington. In any event, the presence of any consulate – even an American one – cannot and will not diminish the right and capacity of an Israeli government – current or future — to take sovereign decisions regarding the eventual status of Jerusalem and future delineation of sovereignty therein.
From an Israeli security perspective, America’s reopening its consulate in Jerusalem deserves support.