US downgrade of Palestinian mission to take effect

The US embassy officially opened in Jerusalem last May on the same day Palestinians commemorate 70 years since the Nakba. (Reuters pic)

JERUSALEM: The United States is expected to move ahead with a downgrade of its mission to the Palestinians on Monday by merging its Jerusalem consulate with the embassy to Israel, a US official said Saturday.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said when announcing the merger in October that it was intended to improve “efficiency and effectiveness” and did not constitute a change in policy.

But Palestinian leaders have seen the decision as another move against them by US President Donald Trump’s administration, which they froze contact with after his 2017 decision recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

A date for the merger of the consulate into the embassy had not been announced, but a State Department official told AFP on condition of anonymity that it “is expected to take place on March 4.”

The Jerusalem consulate general, which has acted independently as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians since the Oslo accords of the 1990s, will be replaced by a new Palestinian affairs unit within the embassy.

US ambassador to Israel David Friedman has been a supporter of Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank and Palestinians view him as blatantly biased in favour of Israel.

The State Department official could not confirm reports that the consul general’s residence in Jerusalem would eventually become the home for the US ambassador as part of the embassy’s move to the disputed city, which occurred last May.

Located near Jerusalem’s Old City, it has been the home of the consul general since 1912, while the US permanent diplomatic presence in the city was established in 1857.

Trump, who is expected to release his long-awaited peace plan in the coming months, has also cut more than US$500 million in Palestinian aid in a bid to force Palestinian leaders to negotiate.

Palestinian leaders call it an attempt to blackmail them into accepting a plan aimed at wiping out their cause.

Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem broke with decades of international consensus that the status of the city must first be decided upon through negotiations by Israel and the Palestinians.