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US to re-open East Jerusalem Consulate

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pledged that the United States will re-open its Jerusalem consulate that had once served as its diplomatic channel to the Palestinians.

The top US diplomat made the announcement while speaking alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday.

Blinken said reopening the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem would be “an important way for our country to engage with and provide support to the Palestinian people,” but declined to provide a timeline for the controversial move.

As part of historic longstanding US policy that did not officially recognize Israeli sovereignty over the city, Washington had maintained two consulates in Jerusalem. One was based on the contested eastern side, which had been ruled Jordanian rule between 1948 and when Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Six Day War. The other was located on the western sector on land over which Israeli sovereignty is not disputed.

The administration of former President Donald Trump merged the consulates into the US Embassy in Israel in 2019, two years after recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the official headquarters there from Tel Aviv in 2018.

Those developments infuriated Palestinians, who seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. The Palestinian Authority (PA) responded by severing most ties with the US.

The administration of current President Joe Biden has previously stated that while the embassy location will not be reversed, it will work to repair relations with Palestinians. In April, Biden also restored hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian aid cut by Trump.

Secretary Blinken also announced that Washington “is in the process of providing more than $360 million in assistance to the Palestinian people.”

The aid includes $38 million in new assistance to support humanitarian efforts in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as nearly $33 million for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinians in support of its West Bank and Gaza operations, and an additional $5.5 million in immediate disaster relief for Gaza.

Palestinian President Abbas, 85, also spoke alongside Blinken in Ramallah.

After mistakenly addressing Blinken as “Secretary Clinton,” Abbas thanked the Biden administration “for its commitment to the Two-State solution (and maintaining) the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif” (Arabic for the Noble Sanctuary, called Temple Mount by Jews and Christians), that contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, built on top of the ruins of both biblical temples.

Abbas also voiced gratitude for what he called American support “for the preservation of (Palestinian) residents of … Sheikh Jarrah,” an east Jerusalem neighborhood where potential evictions of Palestinian families helped spark the Israel-Gaza fighting.

Blinken is currently on a Middle East mission aimed at bolstering the ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas-rulers of Gaza following the recent 11-day Operation Guardian of the Walls conflict.

He began his regional visit in Jerusalem, where he held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Blinken repeatedly affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself during the fighting, and also vowed that the US would assist Israel in replenishing its Iron Dome anti-missile defense system. The Israeli leader, speaking to reporters with the top American diplomat at his side, threatened a “very powerful response” if Hamas renewed cross-border rocket strikes.

Blinken reiterated US resolve that that the Islamist Hamas, which it regards as a terrorist organization, would not benefit from the humanitarian aid.

Saying that “Hamas thrives, unfortunately, on despair, on misery, on desperation, on a lack of opportunity,” Blinken underscored that the proper distribution of aid could actually undermine Hamas’ grip on power. Saying “we know” that “Hamas’ foothold in Gaza will slip” if there is successful cooperation in Gaza between Israel, the PA and the international community, Blinken added, “And I think the Hamas knows that.”

At a press conference later in the day, Blinken also cautioned against actions by Israel or the Palestinians that would inflame tensions or ultimately undermine the Two-State solution to which he said Washington remains committed.

Such actions, he said, included Israeli settlement activity in occupied territory Palestinians seek for a state, possible Israeli evictions of Palestinians from east Jerusalem, and incitement to violence on the Palestinian side.

Negotiations between Israel and the PA, which has limited self-rule in the West Bank, collapsed in 2014. While Biden has said a Two-State solution is the only way to resolve to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, US officials believe it is too early to relaunch the stalled peace process.

Israel is in the midst of political turmoil following 4 inconclusive elections in 2 years, and the Palestinians are divided by enmity between Hamas and the PA. Abbas recently cancelled the first legislative elections to be held since 2006, after it appeared Hamas would achieve major gains. The US supports the PA government headed by Abbas, whose Fatah faction was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in a bloody internecine Palestinian war in 2007.

“Leaders on both sides will need to chart a better course,” Blinken said, “starting by making real improvements in the lives of people in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.”

Full transcript of Abbas / Blinken remarks:

PRESIDENT ABBAS:  (Via interpreter)  In the name of God, the merciful and the compassionate, we would like to welcome Secretary Clinton, who visits us these – in these days —

STAFF:  Blinken.

PRESIDENT ABBAS:  (Via interpreter) – sorry – Blinken, who visits us in these days —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It’s an improvement.  (Laughter.)

PRESIDENT ABBAS:  (Via interpreter) – under very difficult conditions.  And we also would like to thank President Biden and the U.S. administration for their efforts to achieve a ceasefire between the Gaza Strip and Israel, and the efforts that they continue to exert in order to reach a comprehensive ceasefire that will hold.

We would also like to thank the U.S. administration for its support to the state of Palestine and for the resumption of its assistance to us and to the UNRWA.  This is something that we highly value, and we hope that the future will be rife with diplomatic and political effort headed by the U.S. and the Quartet so that we can reach a lasting and comprehensive peace in the region according to international legitimacy resolutions, and so that these actions on the part of a few – of a hurtful few would come to an end.

We also thank the U.S. administration for its commitment to a two-state solution, and the maintenance of the status quo in Jerusalem, and to keep the residents of Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah in their homes.  And also we thank the U.S. administration for its position vis-a-vis the expansion of settlements, and the actions taken by settlers.

We have also affirmed that we are committed to peaceful popular resistance and that we renounce violence and terrorism, and we only want to achieve a political solution through peaceful means between us and Israel.

We have also affirmed that our government stands ready to work directly in order for the reconstruction of Gaza and also to establish a national unity government for that end that would be all-inclusive.  And in the event that such agreement materializes, our first condition would be that Hamas and all parties have to abide by international legitimacy resolutions that are known for everyone.

And we also informed the Secretary that we have postponed the elections, because Israel has refused to include Jerusalem in these elections, and the minute that it does we will hold them immediately and without any delay, because ultimately what we’re interested in is to establish democracy throughout Palestine.

Once again, I thank the U.S. administration and President Biden and Secretary Tony Blinken for the efforts that he’s in engaging in now in order to achieve that end.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, Mr. President, thank you very, very much.  It’s very good to be in Ramallah, or maybe I should say back in Ramallah, to see you, to see the prime minister and your team.

And let me start by conveying the deep condolences of the United States to the families who’ve lost loved ones in the recent violence – the children, the women, the men whose lives were lost.  I say this as a father.  No child, whether Israeli, Palestinian, or American, is a statistic.  We know the human consequences when violence takes the upper hand, and we are determined that that not be the case.  I think the loss of any child is a universe of loss, and in some ways incomprehensible except to those who’ve suffered the loss.  And that’s true irrespective of whether you’re Israeli, Palestinian, American; if you’re a human being, that’s what matters.

We know that the last round of violence is symptomatic of a larger set of issues that we have to address if we’re going to prevent its recurrence, and that’s what we talked about today.  We welcome the ceasefire that continues to hold, but that’s not enough.  We have to build on the ceasefire and try to move things in a genuinely positive direction.  As I told the president, I am here to underscore the commitment of the United States to rebuilding a relationship with the Palestinian Authority and with the Palestinian people, a relationship built on mutual respect and also a shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, and dignity.

As I told Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, the United States will be moving forward with the process to reopen our consulate in Jerusalem.  That’s an important way for our country to engage with and provide support to the Palestinian people.  We’re also working in partnership with the United Nations, the international community, the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian people, the Government of Israel to assist in the relief and recovery efforts in Gaza.  The – this relief is urgent.  We have to respond to the profound need to help people in this moment.

To that end, I informed President Abbas and, earlier, Prime Minister Netanyahu that the United States will notify Congress of our intention to provide $75 million in additional development and economic assistance for the Palestinians in 2021.  We’ll also provide $5.5 million in immediate disaster assistance for Gaza and a little over $32 million for UNRWA’s emergency humanitarian appeal.  This new assistance comes on top of significant support the United States has recently committed and resumed to the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians, to different agencies and groups.

In total, we are in the process of providing more than $360 million of urgent support for the Palestinian people, and across these efforts, we will work with partners to ensure that Hamas does not benefit from these reconstruction efforts.  Asking the international community, asking all of us to help rebuild Gaza only makes sense if there is confidence that what is rebuilt is not lost again because Hamas decides to launch more rocket attacks in the future.  So this is vitally important.

We also talked a little bit about a challenge that all of us have faced together in the past year, and that is COVID-19.  And we will work in the United States to rally the international community to provide 1.5 million doses of safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines to the Palestinian people.

Beyond the immediate reconstruction and (inaudible), we’re also committed to working with the Palestinian Authority and the international community to promote economic stability and progress in the West Bank and Gaza, more opportunity, to strengthen the private sector, expand trade and investment, all of which are essential to growing opportunity across the board.  We’ll also work with the Palestinian Authority to ensure freedom of expression for all Palestinians and the promotion and protection of civil society.  I very much look forward in a short while to meeting with leaders from Palestinian civil society a little later today.

We will, as the president noted, continue to firmly oppose any unilateral provocative actions that risk sparking more violence and that undermine prospects for a just, durable resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, which ultimately requires two states.  And whether that is settlement activity, whether that is home demolitions, annexation of territory, incitement to violence, compensation for individuals imprisoned for acts of terrorism, any unilateral action that undermines the prospects for genuine progress and genuine peace is something we will continue to oppose.

We remain committed to the historic status quo on the Haram al-Sharif.  Palestinians and Muslims from around the world must be able to pray in peace on the Noble Sanctuary, now and eternally.  In Jerusalem and across Israel, Christian and Muslim Palestinian families deserve the same right to worship, build, and thrive as their Jewish cohabitants.

The aspirations of the Palestinian people are like those of people everywhere: to live in freedom; to have their basic rights respected, including the right to choose their own leaders; to live in security; to have equal access to opportunity for themselves, for their children; to be treated with dignity.  And my message today is that the United States is committed, Mr. President, to working with you, to working with the Palestinian people, to realize these aspirations.

Thank you for having us here today.