U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has announced the reopening of the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem — a move that restores ties with the Palestinians that had been downgraded by the Trump administration.
The consulate long served as an autonomous office in charge of diplomatic relations with the Palestinians. But former president Donald Trump downgraded its operations and placed them under the authority of his ambassador to Israel when he moved the embassy to Jerusalem.
The move infuriated the Palestinians, who view East Jerusalem as occupied territory and the capital of their future state.
Blinken announced the step Tuesday after a meeting in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The U.S. is trying to bolster Abbas in his rivalry with Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group and on the international stage.
Abbas heads the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, whose forces were driven from Gaza when Hamas seized power there in 2007. He now administers only parts of the occupied West Bank. Though deeply unpopular at home, he is seen internationally as the representative of the Palestinian people and a key partner in the long-defunct peace process.
Blinken repeatedly alluded to the underlying issues of the decades-old conflict and expressed empathy for both sides, but he showed little interest in launching another U.S. push for lasting peace, perhaps because previous efforts by past administrations have all failed. Instead, he expressed hope for creating a “better environment” that might one day yield peace talks.
Despite these modest aims, Blinken made clear that President Joe Biden will pursue a more even-handed approach to the region than Trump, who sided overwhelmingly with Israel in virtually every area of disagreement with the Palestinians.
“As I told the president, I’m here to underscore the commitment of the United States to rebuilding the relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, a relationship built on mutual respect and also a shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity,” Blinken said.
He did not provide a firm date for the consulate reopening but said that Michael Ratney, a senior U.S. diplomat who has previously served as consul general in Jerusalem, would soon be returning to the region.
Earlier on Tuesday, Blinken vowed to “rally international support” to aid Gaza following a devastating war there while keeping assistance out of the hands of Hamas, as he began a regional tour to shore up last week’s ceasefire. He also announced some $38.5 million in additional aid for the Palestinians. That brings total U.S. assistance to the Palestinians under the Biden administration to over $360 million after the Trump administration had cut off nearly all assistance to them.
A truce that came into effect Friday after the 11-day conflict between the militant group and Israel has so far held, but it does not address any of the underlying issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something Blinken acknowledged after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We know that to prevent a return to violence, we have to use the space created to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges,” Blinken said. “And that begins with tackling the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and starting to rebuild.
“The United States will work to rally international support around that effort while also making our own significant contributions.”
He said the U.S. would work with its partners “to ensure that Hamas does not benefit from the reconstruction assistance.”
Reuters reported that at least 254 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, including at least 66 children, during the 11-day conflict and more than 1,900 were wounded. One Israeli soldier and 12 civilians in Israel were killed, including two children, and hundreds were treated for injuries, according to Israeli officials, Reuters reported.
Blinken said he will not be meeting with Hamas, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and which Israel and the U.S. consider a terrorist organization.
Blinken addressed the larger conflict, saying “we believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely, to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and democracy — to be treated with dignity.”
But the top U.S. diplomat faces the same obstacles that have stifled a wider peace process for more than a decade, including a hawkish Israeli leadership, Palestinian divisions and deeply rooted tensions surrounding Jerusalem and its holy sites. The Biden administration had initially hoped to avoid being drawn into the intractable conflict and focus on other foreign policy priorities before the violence broke out.
Blinken repeatedly affirmed what he said was Israel’s right to defend itself and said the U.S. would assist Israel in replenishing its Iron Dome rocket-interception system.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is fighting for his political life after a fourth inconclusive election in two years. He faces mounting criticism from Israelis who say he ended the offensive prematurely, without forcibly halting rocket attacks or dealing a heavier blow to Hamas.
Netanyahu hardly mentioned the Palestinians in his remarks, in which he warned of a “very powerful” response if Hamas breaks the ceasefire.
Netanyahu spoke of “building economic growth” in the occupied West Bank, but said there will be no peace until the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.”
Palestinians have long objected to that language, saying it undermines the rights of Israel’s own Palestinian minority.
Police clash with protesters
The war was triggered by weeks of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, part of a holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City revered by both Muslims and Jews. The protests were directed at Israel’s policing of the area during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.
The truce remains tenuous since tensions are still high in Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian families is not yet resolved.
The evictions were put on hold just before the Gaza fighting erupted, but the legal process is set to resume in the coming weeks. Police briefly clashed with protesters at Al-Aqsa on Friday, hours after the ceasefire came into effect. The site has seen several outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian violence over the years.
Netanyahu is unlikely to make any public concessions on Al-Aqsa or the evictions because it would be seen as giving in to Hamas’s demands.
Adding to the tensions, Israeli forces on Monday shot and killed a Palestinian man who they say stabbed and wounded two men — one an Israeli soldier — in what the forces described as a terrorist attack in East Jerusalem.
On Tuesday, a Palestinian man was shot and killed by undercover Israeli forces near Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered, according to the PA’s official Wafa news agency. Pictures circulating online appeared to show the man, identified as Ahmed Jamil Fahed, bloodied and lying in the street. The Israeli army referred questions to the Border Police, which did not respond to requests for comment.
Blinken will also visit neighbouring Egypt and Jordan, which made peace with Israel decades ago and have acted as mediators in the conflict. Egypt succeeded in brokering the Gaza truce after the Biden administration pressed Israel to wind down its offensive.
The administration had been roundly criticized for its perceived hands-off initial response to the deadly violence, including from Democratic allies in Congress who demanded it take a tougher line on Israel. Biden repeatedly affirmed what he said was Israel’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks from Gaza.
The administration has defended its response by saying it engaged in intense, but quiet, high-level diplomacy to support a ceasefire.