As U.S. Jerusalem Consulate Shuts, Pro-Israel Envoy Takes On Palestinian Relations

This old building had until now served as the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, which oversaw a key diplomatic line to  Palestinian officials.
This old building had until now served as the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, which oversaw a key diplomatic line to Palestinian officials.
/Wikipedia

When the United States closes its Jerusalem Consulate on Monday, it will not only be winding down a 175-year diplomatic mission. The move also represents another major downgrade of the Trump administration's relations with the Palestinians.

The Consulate General in Jerusalem is the U.S. government's de facto representative office to the Palestinian Authority. The diplomatic mission, first established in 1844 and housed in a historical stone estate in downtown Jerusalem, will be downgraded to a Palestinian Affairs Unit and will merge with the new U.S. Embassy to Israel.

Consul General Karen Sasahara, who has served as an unofficial ambassador to the Palestinians, is leaving Jerusalem and won't be replaced. A lower-ranking foreign service officer will head the new unit. U.S Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a longtime supporter of Israel's West Bank settler movement whom Palestinians see as their ideological opponent, will oversee diplomatic relations with the Palestinians and Israelis both.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the move, which he announced in October, will "improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our operations." Palestinian officials view it as a hostile move.

"The U.S. administration had a choice to build constructive relations with the Palestinian people and leadership. Instead, it chose bullying and arrogance," Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Maliki said in a statement.

A U.S. official told NPR that at least one dissent cable opposing the consulate closure had been sent to senior officials in Washington. The official was unauthorized to speak to the media about the internal diplomatic matter, and spoke on condition of anonymity. State Department officers use the practice of sending dissent cables in rare cases to discreetly protest major policy decisions.

Since the mid-1990s, the Consulate General has served as the U.S. diplomatic mission dealing directly with the Palestinian leadership, while the embassy has worked closely with Israel. U.S. officials viewed the dynamic as providing diplomatic symmetry amid Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

"Historically the position of Washington has been, the two should not be merged," said Ed Abington, a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem. "Now they're merged. The effect on our ability to deal with the Palestinians is being greatly damaged."

The mission merger is the latest contentious U.S. step regarding the Palestinians.

Last year, the U.S. moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, endorsing Israel's claims to the city but enraging Palestinians who also have claims there and drawing international criticism. Palestinian authorities cut off ties with U.S. officials in protest. Then the U.S. closed the Palestinians' diplomatic office in Washington and cut hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian and development aid for Palestinians.

Lara Friedman, a former U.S. foreign service officer in Jerusalem and president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, called the consulate closure "a massive shift" in U.S. policy. "At this point we are saying to the Palestinians and the world — we do not see the Palestinians as a people to engage directly. They are now a minority and a subset to our relationship with Israel," said Friedman, who is not related to the ambassador.

The stately three-story mansion, with arched windows and bougainvillea-covered walls, was where the unofficial envoy to the Palestinians has lived and hosted Palestinian guests. The consul general threw Fourth of July parties for mostly Palestinians in the manicured courtyard. The estate will now be the domain of Ambassador Friedman to host events and perhaps use as a residence.

For years, the Consulate General monitored and reported directly to Washington on the situation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — focal points of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now diplomatic cables will pass through the office of Ambassador Friedman, who will have the authority to censor or reject communiqués, and set priorities for what political officers report.

"Given the ideological leanings of Ambassador Friedman, it seems to me that ... you have a big filter on reporting that's taking place," said former Consul General Abington.

Israel's Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the consulate closure. But Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., called it positive. "I would have no objections for the U.S. to have a consulate in Ramallah, for instance, for the Palestinians," Shoval said, referring to the West Bank city where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered. "But to have a separate consulate in another part of Jerusalem creates a certain fact of splitting Jerusalem into two parts, something which Israel is opposed to."

Scott Lasensky, former adviser to the U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Obama administration, said there were "gross inefficiencies and convoluted lines of authority" with the consulate general and embassy working separately. But he added that the merger "will be widely perceived as a dismantling of previous U.S. policies that positioned Washington as the lead peace broker and advocate for a two-state solution."

The consulate closure is subject to a congressional review period, according to U.S. officials, but it is unclear if any Congress members registered any formal objections to the mission merger. House Foreign Affairs Committee staffers did not return NPR's requests for comment. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy's office said he objected to the move, but his office was not aware of any congressional review process.

"It downgrades our diplomatic posture with the Palestinians at a time when the Trump administration is cutting aid and tightening the screws on the Palestinians, and restricting our engagement with them, apparently believing they can be pressured into supporting the White House's yet to be revealed Middle East peace plan. To the contrary, it has only increased the Palestinians' desperation and distrust, widened the gap between us and them, further damaged our credibility as a mediator, and made the prospects for peace more elusive," Leahy's office said in a statement to NPR.

White House adviser Jared Kushner says the administration will present its still-secret Israeli-Palestinian peace plan after Israeli elections in April.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast negotiator, said the consulate-embassy merger offers a clue about how the Trump administration approaches the question of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which was longtime U.S. policy.

"The administration seems to view Israel-Palestine as more or less one and the same," Miller said, "and that they're thinking not of a two-state solution but something along the lines of a Palestinian state-minus."

NPR's Michele Kelemen contributed to this report.

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