It’s official. The U.S. State Department announced last week that it is on track to open the American embassy in Jerusalem in May. The current embassy in Tel Aviv will be relocated to Israel—a move that only strengthens President Donald Trump’s earlier declaration that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
The declaration, as well as the embassy move, reverses decades of U.S. policy. The new policy infuriated the Arab world—even some that are American allies. Trump’s declaration flew in the face of Palestinians who have long battled over Jerusalem, wanting to secure the eastern region of the city as the Palestinian capital.
Heather Nauert, a spokesperson for the State Department spoke on his behalf, saying that the U.S. is “excited about taking this historic step and looks forward with anticipation to the May embassy opening.”
Not unplanned, the opening day is on the same day (May 14) that Israel will be celebrating its 70th anniversary.
Over time, the Jerusalem embassy will be expanded. In May, it will be in a temporary location in the neighborhood of Arnona while the U.S. and Israel search for a permanent site. Nauert explains that this is a longer-term undertaking.
The U.S. will name David Freeman as ambassador and in 2019, will construct a new annex to the embassy. The United States consulate office located in East Jerusalem will continue to serve Palestinians. Freeman will continue living in the official residence in Herzliya in Tel Aviv for the time being and will commute to the relocated Jerusalem embassy—mainly for security reasons at first.
The U.S. wasn’t expected to even open the embassy until December 2019, so a May 2018 opening is earlier and strategic, as Vice President Mike Pence explained in his January address to the Israeli parliament.
Palestinians, still reeling from the recognition of Jerusalem as the official capital, couldn’t believe the news about the embassy. A spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the embassy opening is completely unacceptable and still doesn’t give any further legitimacy to the Israeli capital.
Palestine has also declared that Trump’s actions have created a major obstacle to any peace efforts in the region.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the embassy move, calling it a reason for a great national celebration. With Netanyahu scheduled for an early March White House visit, he and Trump are sure to discuss the embassy’s long-term plans.
With the embassy announcement, skirmishes once again occurred on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank last week. Palestinian officials report that since Trump’s December announcement, at least 20 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in protests. (Guess that’s Trump’s fault too!)
Interestingly, the Trump administration has had an offer from a private citizen to pay for part of the embassy. Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson has offered to kick in millions once the permanent site is set. He already donated $5 million to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and is ready to donate more. As a Las Vegas casino magnate, he is rolling in dough!
The Jewish Adelson is a staunch supporter of Israel and has amazingly agreed to pay the difference between what the government is able to pay and the true cost of the permanent embassy—an amount that could reach hundreds of millions of dollars. It remains unclear exactly how much of the cost Adelson might be willing to cover.
The plan is for most of the diplomatic staff in Israel to work out of one embassy location rather than being scattered across the city, and experts say that could easily cost $500 million dollars or more.
One legal scenario may mean that the government can solicit donations from many donors, not just Adelson. Historically, the government has not let private citizens pay for government buildings.
Will Trump depart from historical practice?
Adelson’s offer is certainly unconventional, and Trump has vocally complained about the government spending on buildings of this nature. Specifically, he has openly blasted the $1 billion price tag of the new U.S. embassy in London.
Time will only tell what actually happens.