Congress pushes Biden to reopen US consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem

Despite new language in spending bill, congressional restrictions could inhibit president’s goal of restoring ties with Palestinians

A man walks next to a road sign directing to the U.S. embassy, in the area of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
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Congress is seeking to fund the Biden administration’s plan to reopen the US consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem, but so far has shown little appetite for removing recent legal barriers that inhibit the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from reopening its office in Washington.

The foreign aid spending bill, which the powerful Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives advanced last week by a 32-25 party-line vote, contains language to fund the reopening of the Jerusalem consulate.

The report accompanying the bill notes that the committee is appropriating “sufficient funds” to reopen the consulate, which former president Donald Trump shut as he downgraded ties with the Palestinian Authority.

It also requires Secretary of State Antony Blinken to submit a report to Congress on the reopening which must include “a timeline for restoring staffing levels within the consulate and the extent to which such a diplomatic mission complements the broader strategy of improving relations with the Palestinian people”.

Although Mr Blinken confirmed in May that President Joe Biden's administration would push ahead with plans to reopen the consulate, the new Israeli government under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has reportedly asked the US to delay reopening it until the end of the summer.

The consulate has historically served as a direct US diplomatic liaison with the Palestinian Authority. When the Trump administration shuttered the facility, the US embassy in Israel subsumed consular services for Palestinians — one of the many moves that infuriated the Palestinian Authority.

Broadly speaking, Democrats were sharply critical of Mr Trump’s decision to close the consulate and downgrade diplomatic relations with the Palestinians.

But the language to fund the reopening aside, the Democrat-controlled Congress appears to have little appetite to undo the myriad legal restrictions on the Palestinians — including barriers to reopening the PLO’s office in Washington.

This presents a significant obstacle that could keep Mr Biden from fulfilling his pledge to reopen the office, which Mr Trump closed in 2018.

Congress passed legislation in 2019 that would subject the PLO to potentially ruinous lawsuits of up to $656 million in damages to US victims of terrorism if it reopens its Washington office. At the time, the plaintiffs in the terrorism-related lawsuits had hired the law firm Arnold & Porter to lobby Congress to pass the law.

The plaintiffs are backed by the Israeli NGO Shurat HaDin, which describes itself as an organisation that “seeks to bankrupt the terror groups and grind their criminal activities to a halt — one lawsuit at a time”.

This year's bill does appropriate $225m in economic and development aid for the West Bank and Gaza — roughly restoring Palestinian aid to previous annual funding levels before the Trump administration eliminated it — but it also leaves in place several long-standing legal restrictions on that assistance.

Additionally, it preserves Israel’s annual $3.3 billion in foreign military financing with zero restrictions.

Taken together, that bill indicates that the new chairwoman of the foreign aid panel, Democrat Barbara Lee of California, has largely opted to continue business as usual on Capitol Hill when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In previous sessions of Congress Ms Lee had co-sponsored a bill to place conditions on Israel’s annual military aid package over the detention of Palestinian children. But beyond funding the reopening of the consulate, she has not used her powerful new position on the foreign aid panel to enact any significant legislative changes regarding Palestine or Israel.

Lara Friedman, the president of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, argued in her weekly legislative roundup that the bill hinders the Biden administration’s stated policy objectives on reopening the PLO office in Washington and restoring Palestinian aid.

“One might have expected the Biden administration to have worked with Democratic leaders on the Appropriations Committee, and in particular [Ms Lee], who supposedly represents more progressive forces in the Democratic party,” wrote Ms Friedman.

She questioned whether it is “a sign that the Biden administration lacks the political will and political weight to convince Democrats on the Appropriations Committee to support its policies” or if it is evidence that the political composition of the foreign aid panel “even under its new chairwoman, remains such that meaningful legislative change is still a remote hope when it comes to issues related to the Palestinians”.

Still, Hal Rogers of Kentucky, the top Republican on the foreign aid panel, accused Ms Lee of weakening Palestinian aid conditions.

“The bill weakens the conditions placed in prior years regarding the Palestinian Authority and their pursuit of recognition at the United Nations and their campaigns against Israel at the International Criminal Court,” Mr Rogers said before last week’s committee vote.

When The National asked Mr Rogers’s office for specifics, his staff pointed to modified language in the bill that allows the president to waive restrictions on aid should the Palestinian Authority take steps to resume “meaningful negotiations” with Israel.

The conditional waiver has existed in annual foreign aid bills for several years. But this year’s bill tacks on a new part to the waiver that also requires the president to certify “that it is important to the national security interests of the United States and the conduct of diplomacy in advancing Middle East peace”.

The Senate has yet to produce its version of the foreign aid bill before both chambers of Congress settle on the final legislative text for Fiscal Year 2022.

A previous version of the article stated that Barbara Lee co-sponsored a bill to place conditions on military aid to Israel. Ms Lee has co-sponsored similar legislation in previous sessions of Congress, but has not done so in the current session.

Updated: July 06, 2021, 9:02 PM