JERUSALEM – The United States is restoring a line of communication for the Palestinians that had been canceled by the Trump administration.
The move, announced Thursday before a possible visit by President Joe Biden to Israel and the occupied West Bank, is bureaucratic in nature. But it means the Palestinians will deal directly with the U.S. State Department in Washington rather than first go through the American ambassador to Israel.
The department has changed the name of the Palestinian Affairs Unit to the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs. In a statement, the newly renamed office said the move was meant to “strengthen our diplomatic reporting and public diplomacy engagement.”
“We felt that it was important to reintroduce separate reporting lines to Washington on Israeli and Palestinian issues, by our respective teams on the ground that focus on these issues,” according to the statement, which also said the U.S. was reinstating a system in place for decades before President Donald Trump's decision.
The move had been expected for months and the announcement had been postponed several times.
But it falls short of Biden administration pledges — and Palestinian demands — for the U.S. to reopen its consulate in Jerusalem, which for decades had functioned as a de facto U.S. Embassy to the Palestinians.
Both the Palestinian Authority and Israel declined to comment.
The Trump administration shuttered that consulate in one of a series of controversial moves that favored Israel over the Palestinians. Those steps included recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital despite Palestinian claims that east Jerusalem become the capital of an eventual state, and moving the U.S. Embassy to the holy city from Tel Aviv.
Under Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly promised to reopen the Jerusalem consulate, which was established in 1844, well before the creation of the state of Israel. But Israel says such a move would challenge its sovereignty over the city.
It was thought that such a reopening could help mend U.S. ties with the Palestinians that were ruptured under Trump. The U.S. has so far failed to reopen the consulate, apparently in fear of upsetting ties with Israel or destabilizing its fragile coalition government.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said there was no room in Jerusalem for another American mission.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said it views the reopening of the consulate as part of the international community’s commitments to ending Israel’s decadeslong occupation of territories the Palestinians seek for their future state.
Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is now a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council, called Thursday's move "an interim step by the Biden administration toward reestablishing a consulate in Jerusalem.”
The Biden administration has already moved to improve ties with the Palestinians, in part by restoring U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority and funding to the U.N. agency that deals with Palestinian refugees. It has also looked into ways that the Palestinian mission to Washington, closed under Trump, could be reopened, although there are congressional hurdles to such a step.
Lee reported from Washington.