THE US decision moving up the transfer of its embassy to Jerusalem to May of this year, coinciding with Israel’s 70th anniversary, was hailed by Israel as a move of historical significance, while the surprise announcement has further deepened the rift between Washington and Ramallah.
The US Congress passed a law in 1995 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and requiring the president to move the American embassy to the city, but previous US leaders have invoked waivers permitted under the law to avoid implementing the process.
Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, shortly after the State Department announced the decision, US President Donald Trump stressed that moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was fulfilling a key election campaign promise.
“I put the word out that I may do it. I was hit by more countries and more pressure and more people calling, begging me, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it,’” Trump said. “I said we have to do it. It’s the right thing to do. We have to do it. And I did it.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump for his leadership and friendship.
“This is a great moment for the citizens of Israel and a historic moment for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “All the citizens of Israel will celebrate it together. It has long-term implications and great historic significance.”
The embassy is expected to open its doors on May 14, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence (although Israel celebrates Independence Day according to the Hebrew calendar, on April 19 this year). The event will also take place one day after Jerusalem Day, when Israel celebrates the liberation of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, which this year is marked on May 13.
Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state and argue that any decisions pertaining to the capital should only be taken within the framework of peace talks between the sides.
Palestinian official Saeb Erekat noted that for Palestinians the date for moving the embassy coincided with the nakba anniversary.
Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, is the word used by Palestinians to describe the establishment of Israel in 1948.
“We condemn this decision in the strongest possible terms,” Erekat said. “This decision affirms that the US administration has removed itself from playing any sponsorship role in the peace process. Because of such decisions, the US has become part of the problem and therefore can’t be part of any solution.”
Hamas spokesman in Gaza Abd al-Latif al-Kanou said the decision will not give Israel any legitimacy.
“Nor will it change anything in the city.
This decision will serve as a trigger for an explosion of the entire region in the face of Israel.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry also criticized the American decision, issuing a statement saying that the move “reveals that the US insists on undermining the foundations of peace.”
Initially, US ambassador David Friedman and a small staff will set up their offices in the existing American consular building in the Arnona neighborhood in west Jerusalem.
That Arnona building will then temporarily become America’s official embassy, even though the majority of American diplomats will remain at the current embassy building in Tel Aviv, on Hayarkon St.
The State Department said that in the meantime the search will continue for a location for the permanent embassy in Jerusalem and construction will only begin at an unspecified date in the future. The most likely scenario is the site of the Diplomat Hotel, which is next to the Arnona consulate.
The building, which currently houses elderly new immigrants, was purchased by the US in 2014. Under the plan, the structure will be demolished and the new embassy will be built at the site.
The cost of building the embassy is estimated to be around half a billion dollars, and the State Department said that it was examining options for financing the new embassy building. Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major donor to Donald Trump, who also has close ties to Prime Minister Netanyahu, has offered to help.
State Department officials confirmed that the casino mogul has made an offer and said that the legal ramifications were being reviewed.
Prime Minister Netanyahu was expected to invite President Trump to come to Jerusalem for the ribbon-cutting ceremony in May. Officials in Jerusalem stressed that Netanyahu had not asked President Trump to move up the date of the opening of the embassy, although the decision came as a welcome boost for the prime minister as he faces a series of corruption allegations.
Israel hopes that other countries will follow Washington’s example and relocate their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but no other country has yet to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, prompting a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the administration’s move and calling on countries not to move their diplomatic missions to the city.
The December announcement led to fierce condemnation from the Palestinians, along with the Arab and Muslim world, and warnings from Western allies. Despite the rhetoric, protests in the West Bank and Gaza were relatively muted.
Trump’s decision has also sown discord between the United States and the European Union over Middle East peace efforts.
Speaking after talks in late February between European Union and Arab League foreign ministers, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that Jerusalem must be a joint capital for two states, and the “special status and character of the city must be preserved.”
Washington has still to reveal details of its new peace plan aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dubbed by President Trump as the “deal of the century.”
Trump claims that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocating the embassy will push the peace process forward, since it takes Jerusalem off the table as a subject of disagreement.
But for the Palestinians, Trump’s Jerusalem policy means the US can no longer be the key mediator in peace moves, and, addressing the UN Security Council last month, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas said the way forward is for the world body to convene an international peace conference by the middle of this year.