President Biden vowed to reopen the American Consulate in East Jerusalem last May. Now his administration is walking that promise back. Biden’s policy on Palestine is changing too slowly from the Trump years.

By Mitchell Plitnick, Responsible Statecraft

In 2018, President Donald Trump decided to move the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Simultaneously, Trump merged the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem, which had been serving as a point of diplomatic contact with the Palestinian Authority, into the embassy. Of all of Trump’s decisions, moving the embassy and downgrading the point of contact with the PA was one that Palestinians finally could not stand for. They severed contacts with Washington.

Joe Biden came into office with the modest goal of restarting discussions with both Israel and the Palestinians aimed at a two-state solution that fewer and fewer people believe is even possible. Last May, Biden vowed to reopen the consulate, and this past September, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh urged him to fast-track the process.

American consulate in Jerusalem
Photo by Boubakar

But Israel has been firm in its opposition to the idea, and last week, the Biden administration shelved the idea, which had not moved forward in any way. In response, Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, tweeted, “If you needed proof that a two-state solution is dead, here it is. If the US can’t even muster up the will to reopen its own consulate, how does anyone imagine this or any US administration will convince Israel to divide Jerusalem, handover all/most of the West Bank and evacuate at least 200,000 settlers?”

Elgindy’s point is important, but it raises the question of how Washington might have accomplished reopening the consulate over Israeli objections. It is not a simple matter to establish a diplomatic office when the government that controls that area, in this case Israel, is opposed to it.

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, explained: “A diplomatic mission operates as, literally, an island of foreign sovereignty within the territory of the host country, staffed by foreign diplomats who (for the most part) enjoy immunity from the jurisdiction of the host government… to forcibly enter those embassies would be tantamount to an attack on the country itself.”

In other words, any diplomatic mission, whether it is called an embassy, a consulate, or some other name, is essentially a small piece of land that the host country cedes to another country. The United States cannot and would not forcibly establish such an office without permission from the host country. It would not do that with any country, friend or foe, and certainly not one with whom it has a “special relationship” such as that with Israel. It would, essentially, be an invasion, an act of war.

Even if a country decided that, since East Jerusalem is occupied territory under international law, it could go ahead and establish such an office — something that the United States would never even consider — practical concerns would make this impossible, as Friedman explains.

“Only a host country can decide whether to issue diplomatic visas to people sent by a foreign country,” she wrote, “and without such visas there is no diplomatic immunity for diplomats (and the U.S. will not send diplomats abroad in such a situation).”

While it was never possible for the consulate to open over Israeli objections, that doesn’t mean that an initial Israeli “no” had to close the issue. If the United States was committed to opening the consulate, it has ways to at least try to press Israel to agree. As Friedman explained, Israeli opposition is ultimately decisive, but there is no indication that there was any serious attempt to change the Israeli position.

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