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Nir Barkat Tours New York, Washington to Fight Opening of Palestinian Consulate 
The US Consulate Building on Agron Street in central Jerusalem could be used as a US consulate to the Palestinians. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nir Barkat Tours New York, Washington to Fight Opening of Palestinian Consulate 

Likud legislator aims to shoot down State Department’s idea of reopening American Consulate to the Palestinians in central Jerusalem, suggests Ramallah as site

He’s on a mission about a mission.

Former Jerusalem mayor and current member of Knesset Nir Barkat is in the midst of a brief tour of New York and Washington. He says his primary goal is to put a stop to talk of reopening the US consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, claiming it would open the door to a de facto diplomatic split of the capital city of Israel.

“Let me take you back 3,000 years when Jerusalem was founded when our ancestors came back from Egypt. After hundreds of years of slavery, the land was divided into tribes, and each tribe had this piece of land. Except the city of Jerusalem was not invited to (be divided by the) tribes. It was the place that belonged to all people. Jerusalem was the common denominator of all people and when people enter the city, they felt the feeling of belonging. Today, in a quarter of a square mile, you have more functioning mosques, synagogues and churches than anywhere in the world. There is that respect of togetherness. That will never function as a divided city,” Barkat told The Media Line in a one-on-one interview at the start of his trip in New York City.

“So, once the US embassy moved to Jerusalem, suddenly everything became much quieter because people realized and it resonated that Jerusalem is a united city – the united, undivided capital of the Jewish people. Not a lot of people understand that once the embassy moved, it was a very clear declaration that the city will not be divided. It’s bipartisan in the United States,” Barkat said, referring to the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which mandated the embassy’s relocation. “I think it’s very important that people understand that we cannot allow a Palestinian consulate serving the Palestinians in Jerusalem. It could be moved to Ramallah and to other places. That’s fine. We don’t care that America gives the Palestinians services, but not from the capital of Israel and the Jewish people,” he added.

Barkat recently submitted legislation that would make it illegal for the Israeli government to allow a diplomatic mission serving a foreign entity to exist in Jerusalem, in effect preventing the Israeli government from greenlighting any American request to reopen the consulate, which originally opened in Jerusalem in 1844. It served Palestinians from the establishment of the state of Israel, but its headquarters in the western part of Jerusalem was shuttered in March 2019 by the administration of then-President Donald Trump. Since then, the American embassy to Israel in Jerusalem has housed a Palestinian Affairs Unit, with no American consulate general dedicated exclusively to the Palestinians as in the past.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has indicated it wants the Palestinian consulate reopened, but has sent messages to the new, fragile Israeli government that it will give it time to stabilize before tossing the hot-button issue in its lap. The US needs Israel’s permission to place the mission in Jerusalem again.

However, a number of European nations opened consulates in Jerusalem prior to Israeli sovereignty over the entire city being applied in 1967, and they continue to function as de-facto missions to the Palestinians, challenging the notion that such diplomacy could somehow divide the city. Belgium (eastern Jerusalem), France (western Jerusalem), Greece (western Jerusalem), Italy (both eastern and western Jerusalem), Spain (eastern Jerusalem), Sweden (eastern Jerusalem), Turkey (eastern Jerusalem) and the United Kingdom (eastern Jerusalem) all operate Jerusalem consulates, with the UK providing services for “Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories” and Turkey’s jurisdiction covering the Palestinian National Authority. The Holy See has an Apostolic Delegation to Jerusalem and Palestine in eastern Jerusalem but, since 1994, the Pope’s ambassador to Israel has doubled as representative to the Palestinians.

Barkat believes that a reopening of a US consulate in Jerusalem will open the door for more countries to move in on similar terms.

“You know, you can’t make an egg out of the omelet. You can make an omelet out of the egg. G-d forbid, if we do allow this to happen, then the Europeans will come along and say, ‘Hey wait a minute, we also want to open a new consulate.’ It’s precedent. If you open up a consulate for the Americans, the Europeans will want to do the same and all of a sudden you can have all these consulates – a de facto diplomatic center for the Palestinians in the center of Jerusalem. Not allowing a consulate to open in Jerusalem that serves the Palestinians is a bipartisan issue in Israel and we would like to see the US administration accept that fact and continue working in a bipartisan manner with Israel,” said Barkat.

Israeli government policy has long dictated that there can be no Palestinian Authority activity in Jerusalem. The Media Line asked Barkat what would become of the Americans’ Palestinian Affairs Unit within the embassy in Jerusalem and of those European consulates for the Palestinians based in Jerusalem.

“There’s nothing new. I think that all Israeli governments have always very clearly stated that the city of Jerusalem is the united, undivided capital of the Jewish people. We have a supermajority that supports this in the Israeli public and we expect our partners around the world to respect the internal issues of Israel from that perspective. We have no problem that America serves the Palestinians in Ramallah – the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority – similar to many countries around the world,” Barkat said.

If you open up a consulate for the Americans, the Europeans will want to do the same and all of a sudden you can have all these consulates – a de facto diplomatic center for the Palestinians in the center of Jerusalem

Barkat said he plans to meet with Republican and Democratic representatives and senators as part of the Washington leg of his US trip, which is set to conclude on Monday. Barkat, an entrepreneur who is ranked as Israel’s wealthiest politician, is paying for the trip himself. A popular figure in his Likud party, Barkat was left out of the last government after being promised the role of finance minister. He has recently been publicly critical of the head of the party, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, for not stepping aside before the last Israeli elections, and potentially costing a fellow party member the opportunity to form a cohesive government. Barkat told The Media Line he would wait until Likud primary elections were held again before expounding on his strategic vision for the Israeli-American relationship.

Other critics of Netanyahu accuse him of damaging the bipartisan nature of the American-Israeli relationship during his lengthy tenure as premier, and now using his position as opposition leader to drive a wedge between the Biden administration and that of current Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

“I don’t believe it’s true, because I think Netanyahu and myself and others understand how important it is to maintain the strategic relationship. I think sometimes we have internal challenges in our country. But once we go abroad, we try to be very respectful of the government. But, the Americans should hear our opinion, especially in things where we represent over 80% of the Israeli public, like on this issue. Hopefully, we will convince the American administration to follow our recommendation and not to open the consulate in Jerusalem,” Barkat said.

Barkat told The Media Line that he plans to raise other issues in Washington, including, as a matter of course for Israeli representatives, the Iranian nuclear accord file.

“What is there to negotiate? It’s something we Israelis don’t understand. And if you negotiate, the Iranians will tell you what you want to hear and will do what they need to do. It’s part of the strategy. That’s what they want to accomplish. And I sort of asked myself, ‘When will our friends in America realize that the tough neighborhood of the Middle East works differently?’ You don’t negotiate a win-win deal with these folks. These guys want to wipe us off the map,” said Barkat.

“By the way, we’re in the same line as the moderate Arab states around Iran, and the West – Europe and the United States. We’re on the same list. Maybe we’re higher on the list, but the West is on the same list of states Iran wants to wipe out,” he added.

I think that all Israeli governments have always very clearly stated that the city of Jerusalem is the united, undivided capital of the Jewish people

Essentially, Barkat believes that Israel knows its business and its region best, and the US should follow its lead based on the success of the peace and cooperative agreements it has made, while Israel should fall in line with America’s perspective on other pertinent issues.

“When you talk about issues that are important to America, you expect from us to follow your lead. I’ll give an example. The United States of America has very clearly stated that China is a big threat to the world. And you will see that Israel works with the United States on that issue because we understand how important it is and we understand. And, by the way, we think the United States is probably right on this point. And we have to work together – delicately, wisely – but we have to work together,” he said.

Barkat continued: “Similarly, when you talk about the future of the Middle East and the region – how to negotiate with the Palestinians, what to do with Iran, we would like to see the United States let us lead the philosophy of how to maintain peace and quiet in our region. Mind you that Israel struck a peace deal with Egypt 40 years ago and 25 years ago with Jordan and the new Abraham Accords … one of the big reasons why it happened is because we had to be very bad with the bad guys and good with the good guys. So, this is something we hope that the United States of America and Israel will know how to work into their relationship and in a bipartisan way as much as possible. It’s not easy, but we have to do it.”

With a narrow margin in the Knesset, Barkat’s trip to the US will be short, as he will need to fly back to participate in early-week voting, with every opposition member’s presence needed to stymie the government’s agenda. Bennett is facing the same issue, and reportedly is also exploring a rare weekend trip to Washington in August to meet with Biden and other officials in order not to miss any critical legislative votes.

 

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