US merges consulate with Jerusalem embassy

On Monday morning, the US Consulate General in Jerusalem opened under a new name and a new boss.

What had functioned as the US mission to the Palestinians since the 1990s is now officially known as the Palestinian Affairs Unit.

Karen Sasahara, the Consul General, is out, and the new unit reports directly to US Ambassador David Friedman, who has supported Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The US insists that folding the Consulate General in Jerusalem into the US Embassy is all about efficiency, part of the Trump administration’s efforts to increase “effectiveness of our diplomatic engagements and operations.”

“There will be complete continuity of US diplomatic activity and consular services during and after the merger,” read a statement from State Department spokesman Robert Palladino. “We will continue to conduct all of the diplomatic and consular functions previously performed by US Embassy Jerusalem.”

The Palestinians are hardly convinced.

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi slammed the merger as one more step the Trump administration has taken against the Palestinians.

Trump has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel before the conclusion of a peace process, moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem and now closed the diplomatic mission that worked with the Palestinians.

“The Trump Administration is intent on leaving no room for doubt about its hostility towards the Palestinian people and their inalienable rights as well as its abject disregard for international law and its obligations under the law,” Ashrawi said in a statement Sunday. “It is an act of political assault on Palestinian rights and identity and a negation of the Consulate’s historic status and function, dating back nearly two hundred years.”

The consulate, which opened 175 years ago, has in recent decades provided diplomatic representation to the Palestinians. The Consul General there reported directly to the State Department. Meanwhile, the Israelis communicated with the State Department through the Ambassador. The unique arrangement provided two separate, independent lines of communication that allowed the US to understand and deal with sensitive issues in one of the most volatile places in the world.

Now, instead of functioning independently, the consulate has become a unit within the US embassy in Israel.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians will now go through Friedman, who is vocally pro-Israel and an advocate for Israeli settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.

When the merger was announced in October, former US diplomats Hady Amr and Ilan Goldenberg wrote in Foreign Policy calling it a mistake. “It damages the ability of the White House and State Department to get two separate, unvarnished accounts of how Israelis and Palestinians are responding to any given incident … This is essential if Washington is to play the role of mediator in the conflict.”

The change, which comes just weeks before the Trump administration is set to release its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, also signals that any deal would not include a Palestinian state, which would require its own diplomatic mission. The plan, a source told CNN, will eschew the two-state solution in favor of setting out steps toward Palestinian self-determination.

The move also leaves the US as the only major world power without a diplomatic mission to the Palestinians.

The State Department has asserted that the move does not affect US policy on Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza.

“As the President has stated, the United States continues to take no position on final status issues, including boundaries or borders. The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties,” Palladino said.