World News

Tillerson says embassy in jerusalem is at least three years away

Posted December 12, 2017 8:43 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that it is unlikely the U.S. Embassy will be moved to Jerusalem before 2020.

“It’s not going to be anything that happens right away,” Tillerson said, adding, “Probably no earlier than three years out, and that’s pretty ambitious.”

President Donald Trump formally recognized Jerusalem last week as the Israeli capital, but he nevertheless signed a national security waiver, which will allow him to delay the movement of the embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv for an additional six months. Administration officials have said there are functional and logistical reasons the United States cannot open a new embassy any time in the near future.

There are also policy advantages to delaying the move, particularly if the administration wants to keep the peace process alive. The United States can spare itself a series of delicate decisions — like where in Jerusalem to build the embassy — that would begin to define the geography of Trump’s deliberately general statement about the city’s status.

Tillerson discussed the future of the embassy in a speech at the State Department and then took questions from department employees, who have made no secret of their unhappiness with his reluctance to include them in developing foreign policy and of their anger over his plans to reduce the department’s budget.

Tillerson’s own future is also in doubt. The White House has been widely reported to have a plan to replace him with Mike Pompeo, a former congressman who is now the director of the CIA.

A former chief executive of Exxon Mobil who had no previous diplomatic experience before his appointment as secretary of state, Tillerson admitted that he had not known a single person working for the department before being tapped by Trump to run it.

“Truthfully, I was trying to think, ‘Did I know anybody in the State Department?'” he asked, and then shrugged and laughed. “Sorry. Not that I could recall.”

Few in the audience of nearly 300 people laughed with him.

“More importantly,” Tillerson said, “I didn’t know anything about your culture, didn’t know what motivates you, didn’t know anything about your work, didn’t know anything about how you get your work done.”

He became animated when discussing his plans to reorganize the department, mentioning the 300 ideas, 150 “identifiable projects,” 72 “top projects,” 16 “keystone projects” and implementation “tiger teams” that form the core of the effort.

He listed six immediate changes, “or quick wins,” mostly in technology and human resources that he intended to implement immediately as a result of his listening tour of the department. The change that got the most applause was his promise to lift a freeze he had implemented on hiring diplomats’ spouses overseas.

In a briefing for reporters before the speech, a senior department official said that Tillerson planned to speak for 40 minutes and then take questions for at least 40 more. In the end, his planned remarks lasted about an hour and 20 minutes, giving 10 minutes to answer five questions from the audience.

Among the most telling of those answers came in response to a question of whether he enjoyed his job.

He briefly froze before saying, “Well, I’m smiling.”

“I’m learning to enjoy it,” he said. “Look, this is a hard job.”