The biggest diplomatic spat between Israel and the U.S. in recent memory is brewing over the Biden administration’s insistence on opening a consulate to conduct diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority and locating it in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. Despite vociferous Israeli protest, the State Department has repeatedly said it would push forward with opening a consulate anyway, and Secretary Antony Blinken will personally lead the effort.
The U.S. Embassy to Israel is already in Jerusalem, and it has a consular department that provides services to Palestinians. Opening a separate, independent diplomatic mission would undermine a longstanding bipartisan policy of treating Jerusalem as the exclusive capital of Israel.
The consulate plan is a way to undo in part President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem without paying the political price of fully repudiating a move that had broad support even among Democrats. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh understands this and recently crowed that Mr. Blinken’s consulate is a stepping stone to a recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem.
Under settled international law, Israel’s consent is required for any diplomatic mission to be opened on its territory. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Gideon Saar have all forcefully rejected the idea, as has the opposition Likud party. Jerusalem is one of the few issues that unite Israelis across the political spectrum.
The State Department won’t take no for an answer. After Mr. Lapid made Israel’s opposition clear, Mr. Blinken said: “We’ll be moving forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of deepening of those ties with the Palestinians”—a clear démarche to Jerusalem to acquiesce or face consequences. This contempt for Israel’s government is extraordinary.
When Mr. Trump in 2017 recognized Jerusalem as being in Israel and subsequently moved the U.S. Embassy there, he implemented the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, enacted with massive bipartisan support. That put to rest an absurd and anachronistic U.S. policy that treated Jerusalem as not being located in Israel at all, a legacy of an abortive 1947 U.N. initiative to make it an “international city.”
The U.S. did have a consulate in Jerusalem before the embassy move, which was opened in 1844 during the Ottoman Empire. After the creation of the state of Israel, the consulate functioned separately from the embassy in Tel Aviv. The Trump administration closed the consulate in March 2019 because its existence was inconsistent with the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.
That’s why anti-Israel radicals like Rep. Ilhan Omar are pushing hard for the new consulate: It would be a step back to the pre-recognition status quo. Another sign that this is about more than reorganizing diplomatic office space is that the consul general would report not to the U.S. ambassador in Jerusalem but directly to Foggy Bottom—reinforcing the message that Jerusalem isn’t really in Israel.
The old consulate wasn’t established as a mission to the Palestinians, while its potential successor comes with that explicit agenda. As the Israel Policy Forum, a liberal think tank, recently explained, opening the consulate would “reflect U.S. recognition of the Palestinian desire to have a capital there”—in Israel’s capital.
The old consulate never needed Israel’s formal approval, as it predated the establishment of modern Israel. Now, Israel must agree. It fears that doing so would change the trajectory begun when the U.S. put its embassy in Jerusalem. Instead of countries taking America’s lead, as some have already done, by opening diplomatic missions to Israel in Jerusalem, they would insist on opening two parallel missions. If Jerusalem becomes Ramallah’s de facto Embassy Row, Israeli protests about their sole claim to the city would ring hollow.
Mr. Blinken has indicated that he will redouble pressure on Israel in November, after some crucial votes—Israel’s passage of a budget and the Senate confirmation of Mr. Biden’s ambassadorial nominee, Thomas Nides. Democrats previously insisted they weren’t hostile to Israel, only to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If that were true, they wouldn’t seek to bully the centrist coalition that replaced him.
Washington may reckon that Israel’s new leaders hate Mr. Netanyahu more than they love Jerusalem, and thus the coalition won’t fall apart if the U.S. forces Messrs. Bennet and Lapid into submission. This is likely a miscalculation. But U.S. senators who don’t wish to leave a question mark hanging over Israeli control of Jews’ holiest city should demand that the State Department shelve the consulate plan before an ambassador is confirmed.
The Op ed “Blinken Seems Intent on Sparking a Crisis Over Jerusalem” was first published in the Wall Street Journal.