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U.S.-Israel Relations: History of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem

The U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem was first established in 1844 and was located in the Old City, just inside the Jaffa Gate. A permanent consular office was established in 1856 in this same building, which is today the Swedish Christian Study Center.

The Mission moved to a second site on Prophets’ Street, a few blocks outside the Old City, in the late nineteenth century before relocating in 1912 to its present location on Agron Road. The main building of the current Consulate General was built in 1868 by the German Lutheran missionary Ferdinand Vester, whose family and associates built many of the Arab-style homes in Jerusalem (particularly in the nearby German Colony), as well as the American Colony Hotel. The building was one of the first houses constructed outside the Old City walls, built at the same time that Moses Montefiore founded the housing area of Yemin Moshe outside the Old City. The original building had only two stories; a third story was added in the early twentieth century.

The United States refused to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital after its seat of government moved there in 1950. The United States embassy opened instead in Tel Aviv. The consulate remained open, but only to deal with the Arabs in Jerusalem (and, after 1967, the Palestinians in the West Bank). A whole set of rules (e.g., not allowing official cars to fly the U.S. flag in the city, and marking the birthplace of Americans born in Jerusalem as Jerusalem rather than Israel) were then established to do everything possible to avoid the appearance of U.S. legitimation of Israel’s capital. The United States not only refused to locate its embassy in Jerusalem, but also pressured others not to do so.

For years, the ambassador to Israel was considered a spy when the chiefs of American missions in the Middle East would get together. Ambassador Alfred Atherton recalled, “Very often you wondered whether the war between the Arabs and the Israelis was any more intense than the war between Embassies in Tel Aviv and Damascus, or Tel Aviv and Baghdad, or Tel Aviv and Amman.” Relations eventually did improve between the U.S. Ambassador in Tel Aviv and the consul general in Jerusalem, starting with ambassador Samuel Lewis in the late 1970s, but the Jerusalem consulate was a longtime bastion of anti-Semites.

The consulate housed both the Consul General’s residence and office space for employees. A second site, leased since 1952 on Nablus Road provided services to American citizen and visas.

In 2006, the U.S. Consulate General expanded its presence on Agron Road with a lease of an adjacent building for its administrative and public affairs offices. The building, a monastery of the Congregation of the Mission, also known as the Lazarists, was built in the 1860s and still houses a small group of clergy. The walls of both buildings are built of distinctive Jerusalem red Slayeb stone. Roman arch windows and doorways add to their architectural beauty.

All Jerusalem offices are united under the authority of the U.S. Consul General, who heads an independent U.S. mission that is the official diplomatic representation of the United States in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. The Consulate General also provides services to American citizens in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. Throughout its history, staff of the Consulate General has included Christians, Muslims, and Jews, demonstrating that people of different faiths and nationalities can work together in peace in this region.

In January 2015, the United States announced a plan to hire 35 Palestinian security guards from the West Bank to protect the consulate. U.S. officials announced that they had undergone weapons training in Jericho and were screened and approved by United States diplomats. This decision was made by the consulate’s chief security officer, Dan Cronin, and was met with severe backlash from not only the Israeli employees of the consulate but also from the Israeli government. Israelis said it violated an agreement signed in 2011 by the consulate and the Israeli government that states that only former IDF combat soldiers can be armed guards of the consulate.

Workers at the consulate accused Cronin of making anti-Israel remarks on multiple occasions. Some of the Palestinians that he hired had been arrested in the past for throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli security forces, and some of them have relatives who are linked to terrorist organizations.

In March 2019, the U.S. closed the consulate and incorporated its functions into the U.S. Embassy after it opened in Jerusalem. Palestinians were angered by the decision as the consulate functioned as an unofficial embassy to the Palestinian Authority. A Palestinian affairs unit in the embassy was given responsibility for Palestinian affairs.

“This decision was driven by our global efforts to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our diplomatic engagements and operations,” State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement. “It does not signal a change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip.”

In an effort to improve relations with the Palestinian Authority, President Biden pledged to reopen the Jerusalem consulate, provoking objections from Israel. In May 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the consulate would reopen despite the objection of Israel, which opposed reopening it within sovereign Israel. Following a meeting with Abbas, he declared, “The aspirations of the Palestinian people are like those of people everywhere.” The United States is committed, he said, “to working with the Palestinian people to realize these aspirations.”

After Israel formed a new government in June 2021, the Foreign Ministry requested that the U.S. delay reopening the consulate to avoid potentially destabilizing the fragile coalition. The administration was afraid the government would fall and open the door to the return of Netanyahu whose policies Biden criticized. The delay was extended to November when the government was expected to vote on the budget. If the budget is not approved, the government would fall.

According to the 1963 Vienna Convention of Consular Relations, the United States must have Israel’s consent to establish a consular post on its territory. Brian McKeon, the U.S. deputy Secretary of State for management and resources, acknowledged that Washington would need the Israeli government’s consent before reopening the consulate.

The Palestinians interpreted the plan to reopen the consulate as a rejection of President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and strengthened their hope that the city will become the capital of a Palestinian state.

Some critics argued a better option for the administration, legally, diplomatically, and rationally would be to establish the consulate in the Palestinian Authority, specifically in Ramallah, where the Palestinian leadership and institutions are located. This, they suggested, would send the message to the Palestinians that, like President Trump, President Biden will not support the Palestinian demand to make Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state. A member of the Biden team proposed this alternative in 2017. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Hady Amr suggested reopening a U.S. mission in the Palestinian territories to signal a commitment to the two-state solution.

In fact, the United States already has a diplomatic office in Ramallah that could be converted to an embassy. Since June 2014, the United States’ Palestinian Affairs Unit has had an educational and cultural outreach center in Ramallah City – America House Ramallah. According to the U.S. Embassy website:

The mission of America House is to encourage dialogue between Americans and Palestinians in order to foster mutual understanding and emphasize shared values….America House is a place where residents of Ramallah and West Bank can learn essential skills to take advantage of new economic opportunities, including English language, entrepreneurship, and technology skills. It also serves as a place where people can come together and take advantage of the many resources we offer, including our library, 3D printer, wifi connection and computers. America House Ramallah offers a wide variety of presentations about U.S. society and culture throughout the year, hosts regular film screenings, and presents English language classes.

Thirty-four Republicans introduced legislation to prevent Biden from reopening the consulate and 200 Republican House members sent him a letter expressing their opposition to the plan.

Legal issues aside, it was not clear if the Israeli government would risk angering President Biden by placing obstacles in the way of reopening the consulate.

Sources: Consulate General of the United States in Jerusalem.
Mitchell G. Bard, The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East, (HarperCollins: 2010).
Itamar Eichner, “US consulate to arm Palestinian guards in spite of Israeli law,” Ynet News, (January 14, 2015).
Isabel Debre, “US says closing consulate in Jerusalem no policy shift,” AP, (March 4, 2019).
“Merger of U.S. Embassy Jerusalem and U.S. Consulate General Jerusalem,” State Department, (March 3, 2019).
Joyce Karam, “‘The National’ obtains US official document for Palestinian ‘reset,’” The National, (March 18, 2021).
Jacob Magid and Aaron Boxerman, “In Ramallah, Blinken announces plans to reopen US consulate in Jerusalem,” Times of Israel, (May 25, 2021).
Lara Jakes and Isabel Kershner, “Seeking to Restore Palestinian Links, Blinken Risks New Frictions With Israel,” New York Times, (May 25, 2021)
“Erdan: We’re opposed to reopening Palestinian consulate in Israel,” Jerusalem Post, (May 26, 2021).
Jacob Magid, “Israel urging US to delay plans to reopen consulate until new gov’t stabilizes,” Times of Israel, (June 30, 2021).
Alan Baker, “A U.S. Consulate for the Palestinians Should Be on Palestinian Territory – Not in Jerusalem,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (July 15, 2021).
“Rubio, Hagerty, and Colleagues Introduce Bill to Prevent Biden Admin from Opening U.S. Consulate for Palestinians,” Press release, Marco Rubio US Senator for Florida, (October 26, 2021).
“Israeli Consent Needed to Reopen Consulate in East Jerusalem, U.S. Says,” Haaretz, (October 28, 2021).
“America House Jerusalem and Ramallah,” U.S. Embassy in Israel.

Photo: Magister, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.