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Op-Ed: On Jerusalem, the U.S. still indulges Palestinian fantasies

LIVINGSTON, N.J. (JTA) — Recent Palestinian riots in Jerusalem’s Old City, combined with Palestinian claims that Israel is trying to “Judaize” Jerusalem, are part of a coordinated effort to deny Israel its long-held claim to the city as its eternal and undivided capital.

Sadly, American foreign policy encourages the Palestinians to continue with their revisionist fantasies. Why? Because the U.S. officially treats Jerusalem as the Palestinian Arab capital by locating its Palestinian Consulate in Jerusalem and its Israeli Embassy elsewhere.

The United States established its embassy in Tel Aviv and has kept it there, even though Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel since 1950. Prior to that, those areas of Jerusalem held by the Israelis after their War of Independence simply were not secure enough to serve as Israel’s seat of government.

Things have changed. Jerusalem was reunified in 1967, and the city is at peace. Still, the Americans stay in Tel Aviv. How must this appear to the Israelis? Imagine going to someone’s house and demanding to be served dinner in the living room rather than the dining room. That is, in essence, what the United States is doing.

Acknowledging this discourtesy, Congress directed the State Department in 1995 to move the embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the city as the capital of the State of Israel, never to be re-divided.

However, since 1995, every president subject to this act has suspended action on it, asserting that the Constitution grants to the presidency alone the right to conduct the nation’s foreign policy. Of course, there is another reason: Some argue that moving the embassy would represent recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, a policy strongly opposed by many nations.

Nonetheless, the United States does maintain a diplomatic presence in Jerusalem — just not for Israel’s benefit. Located now on Agron Street, just a few blocks outside the Old City walls, the U.S. consular office was established in the 19th century to serve all U.S. diplomatic needs in pre-1948 Palestine.

Today it focuses its attention on the Palestinian Arab community. The office exists as if it is oblivious to Israel’s existence. There is barely any mention of the State of Israel on the U.S. Jerusalem Consulate’s Web site, and the consulate maintains an eerie resistance to recognizing anything affiliated with Israel, Hebrew or Jews. The “About Us” section of the Web site defines the consulate as “an independent U.S. mission that is the official diplomatic representation of the United States in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.”

To give a few glaring examples of the consulate’s Palestinian-Arab orientation: The “2009 Programs and Events” space informs that a poetry contest devoted to pro-environmental themes is open only to “residents of Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem ages 10-22. Poems may be in English or Arabic.” Hebrew poetry evidently need not be submitted.

Black History Month brings American musicians to share “blues and jazz with Palestinian audiences.” What about Jews who themselves are black and who were born in Africa? Never mind because they are Jewish.

This is not merely a matter of symbolism. The American Consulate treats the city as Palestinian, and as the capital of Palestinian life, even though both assumptions are fantasy.

In Jerusalem, the only sovereign leaders of any state, or state in waiting, are Israel’s. Israel’s President’s House is in Jerusalem. Israel’s Foreign Ministry is in Jerusalem.  Its Parliament, the Knesset, is in Jerusalem. And its heart — historically, spiritually, politically and culturally — is Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Arabs have leaders based in Ramallah and Gaza City, respectively. Ramallah is the seat of the Palestinian Authority. It is home to Palestinian centers of science, culture and education. When visiting dignitaries — including then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 — visit Palestinian leaders, they do so in Ramallah.

Perhaps President Barack Obama, so famous for dismissing “childish” disputes rooted in historic squabbles, could bring some realism to the situation.

He could give a speech pledging to a new approach based in realism and the “mutual interests, mutual respect” theme which guides so much of his foreign policy. He could announce that he is moving the U.S. Consulate for Palestinian Affairs to Ramallah, which is where the Palestinian political leadership works, and for the moment, leave the embassy in Tel Aviv.

That, however, still would not be a solution forged in the spirit of mutual respect. To do that, President Obama would have to recognize that the seat of government for Israel is in Jerusalem, and the seat of government for the Palestinians is in Ramallah, and announce that he is placing American diplomats at offices in both those cities and only those cities.

Thus, the American Embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and serve all residents of Israel, and the consulate serving all Palestinian Arabs and a future Palestinian entity would be shifted to Ramallah. Nothing would be more realistic, and nothing would be more symbolic of a policy of pursuing mutual interests in the spirit of mutual respect.

(Cheryl Halpern was an appointee of former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.)

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