One of the many tragedies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that because both sides too often see it as a zero-sum battle, each traps itself into corners that become self-containing prisons. If a situation recommends giving an inch in principle in order to gain a yard in practice, the inch becomes the hill on which each side is willing to die. This ever-present dynamic is currently playing out in different ways for both Israel and the Palestinians, where the refusal to concede any ideological points is going to create larger and easily foreseeable problems down the road.
In Israel’s case, the unwillingness to back down on one issue in service of gaining in a larger way is over the reopening of the American consulate-general in Jerusalem, an office that existed without controversy until March 2019 when it was merged into the U.S. Embassy to Israel. Before the embassy moved from Tel Aviv, the consulate-general had served as an American diplomatic presence in Jerusalem, and it provided consular services to Palestinians since doing so from Tel Aviv would present a number of hurdles. Since the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is not an embassy to both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and the U.S. does not view everything from the river to the sea as a single territorial unit, reopening the consulate-general is a logical step. Not doing so is an explicit embrace of a one-state policy, and moves the U.S. closer to giving up on supporting independent Israeli and Palestinian national movements in favor of a single democratic state. This is presumably why President Biden repeatedly voiced a desire during the presidential campaign to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem, and why Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced earlier this year that the U.S. would indeed do so.
The Israeli government, however, is opposed to this step. Former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not want it to happen at all, and the new Israeli government reportedly asked Biden to hold off reopening the consulate until the Knesset passed a budget so as not to give the opposition a potent talking point that would put more political pressure on the already narrow and fragile coalition. But there is lots of pressure on Prime Minister Bennett not to accede to the U.S. request no matter when it comes, and Likud MK—and eager would-be successor to Netanyahu—Nir Barkat came to the U.S. in July primarily for the purpose of lobbying against the consulate being reopened. Those who oppose Biden’s stated policy of reopening it argue that doing so would effectively grant American recognition to Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and negate American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This is a curious argument to make, as the U.S. has not recognized a state of Palestine, so recognizing any city as its capital would be jumping over quite a few prior necessary steps. Furthermore, having a consulate in Jerusalem until 2019 did not confer the recognition that the consulate’s opponents insist will be an automatic consequence of reopening it today, nor did the consulate’s existence prevent the U.S. from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.
Using the host government’s prerogative not to credential a foreign diplomatic mission will not prevent any of the alleged catastrophes that will befall Israel should the consulate be reopened, as they are all textbook examples of gaslighting. What will happen if the Israeli government prevents it, however, is that a friendly American administration—one that is going out of its way not to cause unnecessary complications for Israel or open up public rifts— may become less solicitous of Israeli concerns in other areas. It’s more difficult to envision a sympathetic ear for Israeli government and security officials’ concerns about the U.S. position on negotiations with Iran, or automatically acceding to Israeli rearmament requests to the tune of $1 billion beyond what is in the current U.S.-Israel security assistance MOU, or swallowing Israeli deals with China that raise alarm bells in U.S. defense circles, if the Israeli government prevents Biden from reopening an American diplomatic mission that his predecessor shuttered after he has repeatedly and publicly conveyed a preference to do so. Reopening the consulate in Jerusalem does nothing beyond restoring the previous decades-long status quo ante without rolling back any actual Israeli gains, whereas demanding that it stay closed will set Israel on an unnecessary collision course with the U.S. that will prevent future headway from being made.
The Palestinians are pursuing a similarly myopic course with regard to Sheikh Jarrah. Last week, the Israeli Supreme Court proposed a compromise in which the Palestinian residents would remain in their homes as protected first generation tenants—which also confers the same status on their children—in return for paying 1,500 shekels in yearly fees to Nahalat Shimon, the settler organization that is on the other side of the lawsuit. The Palestinian residents would also not have to recognize Nahalat Shimon as the rightful owner of the property, but only have to recognize it as the currently registered owner. The reason that Sheikh Jarrah has become an internationally recognized flashpoint and caused such a headache for Israel is not over the question of ownership; it is because of the unseemly spectacle of Palestinian families who have lived in the same homes for nearly seven decades being evicted in favor of Jewish families who have no firsthand connection to the homes or property in question. Any solution that allows the Palestinian residents to stay despite lower court orders upholding the evictions should be considered by Palestinians as an obvious win.
But public opinion among Palestinians is that no quarter should be given, and there is immense pressure on the Palestinian families to reject the compromise. The families themselves say that they won’t accept anything short of being recognized as rightful owners, and it is hard to see how this ends in any way other than the Supreme Court upholding the evictions if the families reject the court’s proposal. Similar to Israel on the issue of the consulate, the Palestinian residents rejecting the compromise that will prevent the evictions because it can be construed as accepting an unpalatable principle will only bring hardship down the road without accomplishing anything. It will transform the Palestinian families from being sympathetic figures who are seeking to avert a miscarriage of justice into less sympathetic and obdurate opponents of a commonsense compromise. It will remove the symbolic and simple power that is on their side by turning a fight that is viewed by the world primarily as preventing evictions into one that is primarily about an ownership dispute. It will perpetuate the tired tropes of Palestinians as being wedded to victimhood and never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and ultimately leave the Sheikh Jarrah families on the street with nothing to show for it. While the families would not emerge from this proposed compromise as the recognized owners of the properties, they would get to stay where they are and continue to fight the legal battle over the ultimate disposition of ownership. It should be viewed as a partial victory, and instead they are treating it as a catastrophic loss.
Watching the U.S. reopen a Jerusalem consulate that serves Palestinians will be hard for Israel. Having to pay even a nominal fee to Nahalat Shimon to rent properties that they believe they own will be hard for the Sheikh Jarrah families. But the alternative should these paths not be taken is worse in both cases, and swallowing the lemonade that has been squeezed from these different Jerusalem lemons is a lot better than drinking the lemon juice that will follow if the glass of lemonade gets knocked to the ground.