World News

U.S. Presses to Relocate Embassy to Jerusalem by 2019

Posted January 18, 2018 8:09 p.m. EST

The Trump administration is moving faster than expected to transfer the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv by 2019, senior officials said Thursday, despite insisting last month that the move would not happen until the end of President Donald Trump’s term.

The administration’s plans, following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, suggest it no longer cares about cushioning the blow of the new policy, which has drawn angry protests from Palestinians and other Arabs and cast Trump’s peacemaking ambitions into doubt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel first broached the prospect of a faster move on Wednesday, telling reporters that the embassy would be moved “in the course of the year.” That put him at odds with Trump, who hours later said, “We’re not really looking at that.”

It was not clear whether Trump’s advisers had briefed him on the new timetable until Thursday. Officials said he was referring to the construction of an entirely new embassy compound in Jerusalem, which Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson predicted would be completed “probably no earlier than three years out, and that’s pretty ambitious.”

But the State Department has since settled on a more modest plan to convert an existing consular building in Arnona, a neighborhood in West Jerusalem. That will reduce the cost of the project and allow Ambassador David M. Friedman and his staff to move there as early as next year.

The timing of the move has caused tensions between Tillerson and the White House. Friedman, who worked as a lawyer for Trump, pushed to move the embassy this year, and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who oversees the president’s Middle East peace initiative, backed him.

But Tillerson petitioned Trump in a meeting on Thursday for more time to upgrade the security of the building, and the president agreed. “What you’ll see from the secretary is that we will do this at the pace of security, not at the pace of politics,” said the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Steven Goldstein.

The Arnona building sits very near the Green Line, which served as the de facto border of the state of Israel from 1949 until the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. While the building, which now issues visas and offers consular services to U.S. citizens, would need to be retrofitted for the ambassador to conduct classified operations, it is a fairly new structure with better physical security than the embassy in Tel Aviv.

The timetable for moving the embassy became a charged footnote to Trump’s landmark decision. When the president signed a proclamation in December recognizing Jerusalem as the capital, he quietly signed another document waiving a congressional demand that the U.S. move the embassy to Jerusalem within six months.

At the time, White House officials said the decision was driven by practical and logistical decisions. The State Department, they said, could not open a functioning embassy in Jerusalem on the timetable stipulated under a 1995 law that requires the president to sign a national security waiver every six months to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv.

Scouting a site, commissioning a design, and building the embassy compound could take up to six years, according to State Department officials, and cost between $600 million and $1 billion.

Legal experts, however, said there was nothing in the 1995 law that would prevent the United States from hanging a placard outside the consulate in Jerusalem and calling it the embassy.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States hastily set up embassies in temporary quarters in the capitals of newly independent republics. U.S. ambassadors have sometimes shuttled between offices in countries like Myanmar, which built new capital cities.

But putting off the move also had diplomatic advantages for a White House eager to keep alive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It avoided creating a tangible symbol of Trump’s new policy and spared the White House a series of decisions — like where in the city to place the embassy — that would begin to define the geography of the president’s deliberately general statement about Jerusalem.

Since Trump’s announcement, however, relations between the U.S. and the Palestinians have curdled. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, vowed never again to take part in peace negotiations brokered by the United States. In a speech to Palestinian officials, he said of Trump, “may your house be destroyed.”

The administration, in turn, said it would withhold $65 million — or more than half the funding that the U.S. generally provides — to a United Nations agency that aids Palestinian refugees.