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7 March 2019

The US consulate in Jerusalem

By: Daoud Kuttab
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Like many other Palestinians, the US consulate on Agron Road in Jerusalem brings back many memories and, of course, lots of discussions, debates and, yes, arguments. The discussions and arguments, however, were all conducted professionally and honestly, and US diplomats in the consulte always showed me and others the best of what America is all about. Respecting opinions, honouring values of human rights and striving, with limited political clout, to do what is right.

Perhaps the most important thing that the US consulate provided was space. It gave space for discussion among Palestinians, between Palestinians and visiting American officials as well as, in some cases, space for Palestinian-Israeli discussion. Some of these discussions were held in public and others were done discretely. One knew, however, that the American diplomats in Jerusalem took their job seriously. The Jerusalem post was no picnic. Those diplomats who made it in Jerusalem often rose to high positions within the US Department of State.

For a while, and before the US government had recognised the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the meetings with Palestinian leaders, like Faisal Husseini, Sari Nusseibeh, Hanan Ashrawi and others were meant to show respect to Palestinian nationalism, despite the fact that US officials were handcuffed by Washington.

American diplomats, of course, kept their opinions close to their chest, but it was not hard to figure out where they stood and what was the general view that they were sending to their leadership in the US Department of State. The diplomats in Jerusalem and their cables, as has been the case for 175 years, were transmitted directly to Washington. No ambassador in Tel Aviv, Amman or anywhere else would intervene with these communications.

US diplomats in Jerusalem paid a lot of attention to issues of human rights and the constant Israeli violations. Whether it was issues of administrative detention, house demolitions, torture in Israeli jails or settler violence, they were researched, documented and transmitted without any filters.

Perhaps the regular cables about Israel's continued settlement enterprise were among the most important pieces of communications. US officials at the consulate were in the field, chasing after the latest settlement expansion or any new illegal settlements. I have no doubt in my mind that the strong consistent US policy against the illegal Israeli settlements was made possible as a result of the dedication and research conducted by the staff of the US consulate in Jerusalem.

The recognition of the PLO, the declaration of principles, also known as the Oslo Accords, and the establishment of Palestinian institutions complicated the work of the consulate, which had to report on new violations of human rights by the Palestinian security and not just by the Israelis.

While the US consulate’s mission continued to be of importance, the flurry of anti-Palestinian moves during the Trump administration obliterated the work of the consulate in Jerusalem and made its work irrelevant. The move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the closure of the Palestinian mission in Washington, the defunding of UNRWA and the end of any USAID support to schools, hospitals and water projects basically took away some of the basic tools of diplomacy.

But the US moves produced a political boycott by the Ramallah-based leadership to all American officials. US President Donald Trump's peace team was unhappy and various efforts to goad the Palestinian leadership to engage with them failed.

Yet despite this official Palestinian boycott, the US consulate should have continued to find ways, as it did before the recognition of the PLO, to engage with Palestinian nationalists and civil society. The wide network of contacts that the consulate had could have been used to better gauge attitudes and give the leadership in Washington a much more accurate understanding of what Palestinians want.

However, this was not to be. Instead of keeping the channels of communications open, the Trump administration followed up one mistaken decision, moving the embassy, with yet another mistaken decision. But this time, the decision by Washington was clearly an own goal. Closing the US consulate, which was created as a result of the international community's decision to deal with Jerusalem as a corpus separatum, removes any semblance of interest by the US of trying to find a solution to the conflict. Engaging with the Palestinians was a major task for the US consulate, which now no longer exists.

Some have argued that the decision to close an important diplomatic mission might be reversed with a different administration. That is possible but unlikely. What is sad is that people in Washington will be in further darkness now that their eyes and ears in Jerusalem are no longer empowered to have unfettered access to inform the state department of what Palestinians think.

* A Palestinian columnist based in Amman, Jordan. - dkuttab@ammannet.net

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