Hady Amr and Ilan Goldenberg write that the merger of the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem and the new U.S. embassy there does major harm to the U.S. ability to act as a mediator in the conflict and serves as a severe blow to the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace through a two-state solution. This piece originally appeared on ForeignPolicy.com.
While the world was rightly focused on the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, an entirely different consulate—that of the United States in Jerusalem—all but disappeared. And the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace took a major blow in the process.
Former Brookings Expert
Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security program - Center for a New American Security
Here’s what happened: On Oct. 18, U.S. President Donald Trump treated the world to the latest twist in what he says is his quest for the “ultimate deal.” His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, announced that the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, which opened in 1844 and has served as the United States’ principal venue for communication with the Palestinian people and Palestinian leadership, would be merged into a subunit of the U.S. Embassy in Israel—which Trump moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May.
In a unique arrangement, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem did not report back to Washington through the ambassador. Instead, he or she had a direct reporting line back to the State Department and for all intents and purposes—though not in name—played the role of ambassador to the Palestinians.
Merging units sounds efficient. But this merger does major harm to the United States’ ability to act as a mediator in the conflict and serves as a severe blow to the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace through a two-state solution.
Merging units sounds efficient. But this merger does major harm to the United States’ ability to act as a mediator in the conflict.
First and foremost, it signals to all involved—Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians—that the United States sees one political entity between the river and the sea. Having subsumed the role of Washington’s primary interlocutor with the Palestinians to that of the ambassador to the Israelis sends a clear message: The United States is no longer truly pursuing a two-state solution and will treat the Israelis and Palestinians as a single political entity instead of two.
Second, it damages the ability of the White House and State Department to get two separate, unvarnished accounts of how Israelis and Palestinians are responding to any given incident. When we worked together for the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, we frequently relied on getting the two different perspectives from our mission to Israel and our mission to the Palestinians so that we could formulate a response that took both sides’ views into account. This is essential if Washington is to play the role of mediator in the conflict. Now that reporting will all need to go through the lens of one ambassador, the United States is likely to only get half of the story.
Is David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, who has a long history of supporting the far-right settler movement, going to allow balanced, two-sided accounts to make it back to Washington? We doubt it. Instead, when events such as protests, rocket attacks, and killings occur, the analysis will be heavily biased toward the Israeli perspective. Unbalanced reporting will not serve the interests of this or any future president or secretary of state.
Third, this change will further damage the United States’ ability to influence events on the ground and will harm U.S. relations with the Palestinians. That said, it’s not clear how much lower Trump’s standing can go. A recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that 90 percent of Palestinians thought Trump was biased against them, and the Palestinian Authority has refused to meet with U.S. officials for almost a year. The only saving grace is that Pompeo said the consolidation “does not signal a change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip…The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties.” But actions speak louder than words. And most Palestinians are unlikely to find this nuance convincing.
The merger raises another fundamental question. With an equal number of Arabs and Jews in the land, will the U.S. ambassador spend his time and energy evenly on both, building relations equally? If he doesn’t, that sends a signal—and an ugly one at that. Though we should say that it will be quite hard for the ambassador to build that relationship with the Palestinians, given that he is closely associated with the Israeli far-right and most Palestinians will likely refuse to meet with him.
What is certain is that Trump’s pursuit of the “ultimate deal” at this point is preposterous. Taken together with Trump’s other recent moves—relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, closing the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington, eliminating funding to Palestinian refugees, canceling assistance to the West Bank and Gaza—it is now nearly impossible for the United States to play a central role in pursuing a peace deal, as it has killed off its relationship with the Palestinians.
The Trump administration will argue that this is not the case. Instead, its theory is that the source of the conflict is ultimately the Palestinians and that they have missed one chance after another to make peace. Therefore, the only option is to take away all of their choices and pressure them. Eventually, the Palestinians will realize they have no choice but to come to the table and accept an agreement on Israel’s terms.
This is a fundamental misreading of the situation. There is no doubt that the Palestinian leadership has missed many an opportunity, but Israeli missteps and miscalculations often have been equally problematic. More important, the notion that the Palestinians will simply surrender when pressed is wrong. The Palestinians do have another option if they see the two-state solution slipping away, which is not to roll over and give up. Instead, they could shift their position to one much of their younger population wishes to move toward anyway—one state with equal rights for all of its citizens. Increasingly, when we talk to the next generation of Palestinian leaders, what we hear is something like: “I don’t care whether it’s two states or one. I want my rights. I want a vote that counts. I want a job that’s good. I want an iPhone that works. I want a passport that’s real, and it doesn’t matter if that passport says Israel or Palestine.”
Finally, if a one-state reality emerges, will it be based on freedom and equality for all—Jews and Palestinians alike? If it does, then this will mean the end of the Jewish nature of the state of Israel. If it does not, it will be an ugly separate-but-unequal reality that will erode Israel’s values and isolate it internationally.
Rather than reorganizing the U.S. government to accept this intolerable option, the United States should keep the structure of the embassy in Israel and consulate to the Palestinians as it has for decades. Two U.S. representatives for two peoples who we hope soon will be living in two states, side by side, in peace and security.
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