After embassy move, Trump weighs Jerusalem consulate changes

As president, Trump has departed from traditional US insistence on a “two-state solution” for the Mideast conflict by leaving open the possibility of just one state. (AFP)
Updated 01 June 2018
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After embassy move, Trump weighs Jerusalem consulate changes

  • Downgrading autonomy of the US Consulate General in Jerusalem could suggest US recognition of Israeli control over Palestinian territories
  • Instead of reporting to the US Embassy in Israel, the consulate reported directly to Washington

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump is considering giving US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman more authority over the US outpost that handles Palestinian affairs, five US officials said, a shift that could further dampen Palestinian hopes for an independent state.
Any move to downgrade the autonomy of the US Consulate General in Jerusalem — responsible for relations with the Palestinians — could have potent symbolic resonance, suggesting American recognition of Israeli control over east Jerusalem and the West Bank. And while the change might be technical and bureaucratic, it could have potentially significant policy implications.
As president, Trump has departed from traditional US insistence on a “two-state solution” for the Mideast conflict by leaving open the possibility of just one state. As his administration prepares to unveil a long-awaited peace plan, the Palestinians have all but cut off contact, enraged by Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
The deliberations come as Friedman, who has pushed for changes to the consulate since he arrived in Israel last year, faces growing indignation in the US over partisan comments and other actions in which he has publicly sided with Israel over its critics. On Thursday, a top Democratic lawmaker even suggested Friedman should be recalled after he waded into domestic US politics on Israel’s behalf, telling an Israeli newspaper that Democrats have failed to support Israel as much as Republicans.
For decades, the Jerusalem consulate has operated differently than almost every other consulate around the world. Rather than reporting to the US Embassy in Israel, it has reported directly to the State Department in Washington, giving the Palestinians an unfiltered channel to engage with the US government.
That arrangement was relatively clear-cut before Trump moved the embassy. Until Trump’s decision in December to move it from Tel Aviv, the United States did not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Jerusalem consulate provided services to Americans in Jerusalem and also served as the de facto US embassy to the Palestinians, who claim east Jerusalem for the capital of a future independent state.
But since Trump earlier this month moved the embassy to Jerusalem, the situation has become more complicated. Now the US maintains an embassy in one part of the city and a separate consulate less than a mile away, potentially creating confusion about who has ultimate authority if, for example, an American citizen needs help and turns to the US government.
No final decision has been made about what changes to make to the consulate’s chain of command, a decision complicated by the consulate’s unique circumstances. But the embassy, run by Friedman, is expected to end up with ultimate authority over the consulate, officials said. They weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity.
Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel, said such a move would be perceived as undermining Palestinians’ claims to sovereignty and statehood aspirations, because it would suggest that Washington considers the Palestinian Authority to be under Israel’s jurisdiction. Otherwise, Shapiro said, why would it expect the Palestinians to talk to the US through its mission to Israel?
“They don’t want to deal with the US embassy to Israel as their channel,” said Shapiro, now a scholar at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. “They want their voice to be heard directly in Washington.”
Typically, the head of a consulate, known as a consul general, reports to the ambassador, who has “chief of mission authority” over all US posts in the country. In contrast, the consul general running the Jerusalem consulate has historically had his or her own chief of mission authority. The closest comparable case to the Jerusalem situation is the US Consulate in Hong Kong, which also has its own chief of mission who does not report to the US ambassador in Beijing.
Friedman has advocated for having the embassy in Jerusalem subsume the consulate, officials said, although the State Department has ruled out that possibility. Other possibilities include allowing the consulate to retain some day-to-day authorities while letting the embassy set the direction for major policy decisions.
Staunchly pro-Israel and with close ties to the West Bank settler movement, Friedman is broadly seen by Palestinian leadership as lacking good faith in US efforts to mediate a fair resolution to the Mideast conflict. But on the consulate issue, he has an ally in the White House in the form of national security adviser John Bolton, the officials said.
It wasn’t clear precisely when the changes would be made, although one official said the administration is waiting until current Consul General Donald Blome leaves Jerusalem over the summer, possibly in July.
Regardless of any changes, the Jerusalem consulate will remain the primary US point of contact for the Palestinian Authority and for Palestinians, including those in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip seeking visas or other US consular services.
“Consulate General Jerusalem continues to operate as an independent mission with an unchanged mandate from its historic Agron Road location,” the State Department said in a statement.
Such changes would likely be carried out by Trump issuing new “letters of instruction,” which delegate authorities to ambassadors and chiefs of mission, to Friedman and whoever heads the Jerusalem consulate, the official said.
Separately, the Trump administration is also facing calls in Congress for the US to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. Although Israel annexed the Golan in 1981, the US and others consider it to be disputed territory with its status subject to an eventual peace deal between Israel and Syria.
In recent months, however, Iran’s increasing involvement in Syria and growing presence in southern Syria near the Golan Heights have drawn alarm in Israel and elsewhere, leading some US law- and policy-makers to believe that the Washington should end its official neutrality in a show of support for Israeli security in the face of a threat from Iran and its proxies.
Ideas under discussion range from flat-out recognition that the Golan is part of Israel to lifting restrictions on US investment incentives for projects or more symbolic steps like including the area on official maps as part of Israel.


Erdogan faces biggest challenge in tight Turkey polls

Updated 34 min 39 sec ago
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Erdogan faces biggest challenge in tight Turkey polls

ANKARA: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday faces the biggest ballot box challenge of his 15-year grip on Turkey, seeking to overcome a revitalized opposition against the background of an increasingly troubled economy.
A self-styled heavyweight champion of campaigning, Erdogan has won successive elections since his Islamic-rooted ruling party came to power in 2002, transforming Turkey with growth-orientated economic policies, religious conservatism and an assertive stance abroad.
But he appears to have met some kind of match in his main presidential rival Muharrem Ince, a fiery orator from the left of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who has been unafraid to challenge Erdogan on his own terms.
The intrigue is deepened by the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections on the same day under controversial constitutional changes spearheaded by Erdogan which will hand the new Turkish president enhanced powers and scrap the office of prime minister.
The vote takes place almost two years after the failed coup aimed at ousting Erdogan from power, a watershed in its modern history which prompted Turkey to launch the biggest purge of recent times under a state of emergency that remains in place.
Some 55,000 people have been arrested in a crackdown whose magnitude has sparked major tensions with Ankara’s Western allies.
Only a knockout first round victory for Erdogan and a strong parliamentary majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will be seen as an unequivocal victory for the Turkish leader.
And many analysts believe Ince can force a second round on July 8, while AKP risks losing its parliamentary majority in the face of an unprecedented alliance between four opposition parties.
“This is not the classical opposition that he has been facing for 15 years and which he more or less succeeded in managing and marginalizing,” said Elize Massicard of the French National Center for Scientific Research.
“It’s a new political dynamic that has grown in magnitude,” she said.
The opposition was already boosted by the relatively narrow victory of the “Yes” campaign in the April 2017 referendum on the constitutional changes.
Most opinion polls — to be treated with caution in Turkey — suggest Erdogan will fall short of 50 percent in the first round.
Erdogan remains by far Turkey’s most popular politician and inspires sometimes near-fanatical support in the Anatolian interior, where he is credited with transforming lives through greater economic prosperity.
“A great Turkey needs a strong leader,” says the slogan on election posters of Erdogan plastered across Turkey.
But the elections come at a time when Turkey is undergoing one of its rockiest recent economic patches despite high growth, with inflation surging to 12.15 percent and the lira losing 20 percent against the dollar this year.
Erdogan brought the elections forward from November 2019 in what many analysts saw as a bid to have them over with before the economy nosedived.
The opposition has sought to play on signs of Erdogan fatigue and also echoed Western concerns that freedom of expression has declined drastically under his rule.
For the first time, Erdogan has been forced to react in the election campaign as the opposition set the pace.
He had to deny quickly when Ince accused him of meeting the alleged architect of the 2016 failed coup, Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan promised to lift Turkey’s two-year state of emergency only after the CHP had vowed the same.
“The opposition is able to frame the debate in the election and this is a new thing for Turkish politics,” Asli Aydintasbas, fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) said.
“A party that has been in power for so long is, in an economic downturn, going to experience a loss (in support) and lose its hegemony over politics,” she added.
While the CHP sees itself as the guardian of a secular and united Turkey, Ince has also sought to win the support of Turkey’s Kurdish minority who make up around a fifth of the electorate.
A rally held by Ince in the Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakir in the southeast attracted considerable attention. “A president for everyone,” reads his election slogan, over a picture of the affably smiling former physics teacher.
The opposition, which argues that Erdogan has been given a wildly disproportionate amount of media airtime in the campaign, has sometimes resorted to creative and even humorous campaign methods.
The Iyi (Good) Party of Meral Aksener, once seen as a major player but lately eclipsed by Ince, put out humorous messages on Google ads and even devised a computer game where light bulbs — the AKP symbol — get destroyed.
Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate of the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), has campaigned from his prison cell following his jailing in November 2016. He made an election speech on speaker phone through his wife’s mobile but was allowed give a brief election broadcast on state TV, albeit from prison.