Contrary to earlier official announcements that US President Donald Trump’s decision in early December to move the American Embassy to Occupied Jerusalem, which infuriated Palestinians and Arabs, could take up to two years, the US State Department suddenly announced Friday, 23 February, that the process will be speeded up to coincide with celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation in May.
Under the new arrangement, approved by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on 22 February and announced Friday, the US ambassador and a small group of staff will start in May functioning out of the existing US consulate in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighbourhood. Expansion of the facility will take place by the end of 2019, the State Department said.
US reports said that the decision, which Palestinians say jeopardises the American role as mediator in the Middle East peace process, reflected that ardent Zionists within Trump’s administration, mainly Vice President Mike Pence and the president’s son-in-law and Middle East peace envoy, Jared Kushner, now have the upper hand in decisions related to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
Tillerson and the State Department have reportedly argued for slowing down the process to give a chance to sell proposals on reviving peace talks to Palestinians, and in fear of angry reactions against US interests in the region.
Now, Palestinians and Arabs are not only angry because of the decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in violation of international law and Security Council resolutions that consider the city occupied by Israel in 1967, but also for choosing a timing that clearly aims at ridiculing their feelings and ignoring Palestinian suffering under occupation over the past 70 years.
In Arab narrative, the memory of Israel’s creation on 17 May 1948 is referred to as the Nakba, or the “Catastrophe” as it marked the beginning of the loss of their homeland, turning millions into refugees and living under racist occupation.
Trump, meanwhile, continued to brag about his decision to move the US Embassy to Occupied Jerusalem and to recognise the city as Israel’s capital, mainly seeking to satisfy his right-wing constituency. He told a conservative action group Friday that he resisted strong pressure not to make the decision.
“You know, every president campaigned on, ‘We’re going to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,’ everybody, for many presidents, you’ve been reading it, and then they never pulled it off, and I now know why,” Trump said.
“I was hit by more countries and more pressure and more people calling, begging me, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it.’ I said, ‘We have to do it, it’s the right thing to do. The campaign against it was so incredible. But you know what, the campaign for it was also incredible,” he added.
Trump said that, “every other president really lied, because they campaigned on it. That was always a big part of the campaign. Then they got into office, they never did it.”
The US Congress decided in 1995 to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, every US president has waived that decision since then in order to maintain US credibility as a peace mediator in talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
According to the 1993 Oslo Peace Agreement, sponsored by the United States and signed at the White House, the fate of Jerusalem is one of five key final settlements issues that are to be determined through negotiations between the two sides.
Other issues include borders, refugees, illegal settlements and water. Thus, Trump’s decision angered Palestinians who said his decision violated the Oslo Peace Agreement, and was a unilateral recognition of Occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Last month Vice President Pence had told the Israeli parliament that the embassy move would take place in 2019.
Trump’s decision provoked protests in Palestine, several Arab countries and European cities. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to meet with US officials, including Vice President Pence, since Trump took his decision 6 December.
He also announced that Trump’s declaration disqualified the US as a mediator in the long-stalled peace process, and called for an international conference later this year to propose a peace plan that would lead to the creation on an independent Palestinian state “with East Jerusalem as its capital”.
After the United States used its veto power in the Security Council to prevent it adopting a resolution calling upon the international community not to take any steps that would jeopardise the status of Jerusalem as an occupied city, the United Nations General Assembly voted 128-9 to condemn the US plan.
“Moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on 14 May is not only a violation of international law, but also provocative to the feelings of the Palestinian and Arab people,” said Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
“The US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and now to move its embassy on the eve of marking 70 years since the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of at least 418 Palestinian villages, and the forcible displacement of two thirds of our people, shows the determination of the US administration to violate international law, destroy the two-state solution, and provoke the feelings of the Palestinian people, as well as of all Arabs, Muslims and Christians around the globe,” added Erekat in a statement.
“As we have stated before and is now abundantly clear by the decision to move its embassy in direct violation of UN Security Council Resolution 478, President Trump and his team have disqualified the US from being part of the solution between Israelis and Palestinians; rather, the world now sees that they are part of the problem.”
The PLO official said the US decision clearly contradicts international law and consensus on the legal status of Jerusalem. “East Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Palestine, an integral part of the territory occupied by Israel since 1967,” he stressed.
Meanwhile, in Israel, the State Department’s announcement was widely celebrated. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, “this is a great moment for the State of Israel.” He added, “President Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem will make our Independence Day celebration even happier. Thank you, President Trump, for your leadership and for your friendship.”
The Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer tweeted: “70 years apart. Two historic decisions. One united capital,” referencing president Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel on 14 May 1948, together with the expected 14 May embassy move to Jerusalem.
Israel’s Jerusalem Post reported Sunday that Netanyahu, who is scheduled to meet with Trump in Washington 5 March, is expected to raise the idea of Trump coming to Jerusalem for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Trump was last in Israel in May.
Adding to the controversy on Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Occupied Jerusalem, US media reported that the administration was also involved in discussions with Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire owner of Las Vegas Sands Corp, the world’s largest gambling casino operator, and a major Trump backer, to help fund the embassy.
State Department lawyers were reportedly studying the legality of the proposal, which Adelson has been discussing with the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, since last year, a State Department official said. The early consensus is that US law wouldn’t allow for the embassy to be privately funded, but talks are continuing.
The New York Times reported Sunday that even some of Adelson’s allies expressed concern that if the administration accepted his offer for the permanent embassy, it could be seen as a well-heeled financial contributor effectively privatising — and politicising — American foreign policy.
“I’m concerned that people will think that this is being done because of a group of people — evangelicals and Jews — who care about it and not because it’s the US government that cares about it,” Morton Klein, who runs the Zionist Organisation of America, told the Times. “It should be crystal-clear that this is the US government making the decision to move it,” he added.
The total price tag to build the new embassy to replace the current one in Tel Aviv is estimated at around $500 million, according to one former State Department official. While private donors have previously paid for renovations to American ambassadors’ overseas residences, Adelson’s contribution would be likely to far surpass those gifts — and could further strain American diplomacy in the Middle East, the Times added.
For years, Adelson, a right-wing Zionist, has pushed the United States government to move its embassy to Occupied Jerusalem. With an estimated net worth of $40 billion, Adelson donated heavily to Trump’s campaign and gave $5 million to the committee organising the president’s inauguration festivities, the largest such contribution ever.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly