A quiet Jerusalem locality gets US embassy

A quiet Jerusalem locality gets US embassy

A quiet Jerusalem locality gets US embassy

For what may be the most visible foreign policy step the United States has taken since President Donald Trump took office, the US Embassy set to open in Jerusalem in three months is a bit hard to spot.

The ambassador's new quarters - really, a provisional office until a full-fledged embassy building is erected - will be located in the US Consulate General, a low-lying, fortress-like compound. It is half hidden down a steep incline off a quiet, residential street a few miles south of the Old City. Not much can be seen from the road, apart from a large American flag flying from the rooftop.

But the Trump administration's decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has not gone unnoticed. Nor has Washington's seeming determination to accelerate the move.

When Trump announced in December that he was veering from almost seven decades of US policy - and that of the vast majority of the world's nations - and formally recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital, White House officials spoke of the embassy move taking several years.

A month later, addressing the Israeli Parliament, Vice President Mike Pence pledged that the new embassy would open by the end of 2019. Then, on Friday, the White House said that it wanted to open a temporary embassy in Jerusalem in time for the 70th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, on May 14.

As a first step, the State Department said, the consulate in the Arnona neighbourhood would carve out some office space for Ambassador David M Friedman and a small staff.

By the end of next year, the compound is to be expanded to include an interim embassy annex providing more office space for the ambassador and his team. Friedman is expected to commute from his seaside residence in Herzliyya, north of Tel Aviv, until a secure residence can be found in Jerusalem.

A search is underway for a site for a permanent embassy to be built, but for the foreseeable future, the face of the US government will be in Arnona.

The consulate there, which opened in 2010, is the newest and most secure US facility in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, according to a State Department official.

The official added that there was no change to the mandate of the consulate, which engages in a wide range of political, economic, cultural, and educational contacts in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as in Jerusalem, and also serves American citizens.

Life in Arnona seemed to be continuing quietly Sunday morning. Across the street from the consulate, Naomi Elook, 63, an Israel cosmetician, runs a small beauty salon in the basement of the apartment building where she has lived for 30 years.

A young Muslim woman in a flowered headscarf was waiting for a treatment, and Elook said that 80% of her clients were Palestinians from East Jerusalem. "I am happy about the embassy move," she said. "It will enrich the neighbourhood and bring more security."

The Arnona compound sits between the predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war and then annexed in a move that was never internationally recognised. But the compound has always been in Israel's possession and so is not, experts say, considered occupied territory.

"There are infinite ways in which the embassy move is horrible, counterproductive, destructive," said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney who specialises in Jerusalem affairs. "But the site is not the problem."

Within the compound sits a decades-old former hotel, aptly named The Diplomat, which the Americans rent out as a facility for elderly Russian-speaking immigrants. Laundry hangs on lines outside some of the windows.

One resident, Charna Kommar, 80, who arrived from Moscow in 2004, seemed pleased with the prospect of her new neighbour, saying it was "very important" to have the embassy in Jerusalem. Another small stone building in the compound houses the head office of Burgers Bar, a popular Israeli food chain.

Some in Arnona worry that the temporary embassy could prove disruptive. Among them is Michael Frisher, 52, a driving instructor who has been taking students into the neighbourhood for 20 years because it is on the city's test route. "For us, it's not good," he said. "It could disturb us. They could close the roads."

A fellow driving instructor, Ovadia Tamir, also 52, said that while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is mired in corruption investigations, might get a political lift from the embassy move, no one else was benefiting.

"This will only help Netanyahu, nobody else," Tamir said. Worried about Palestinian anger over the coming embassy, he added, "We don't want trouble."

'Part of the problem'

On Sunday, the prime minister commended the news from Washington about the earlier embassy move. "This is a great moment for the citizens of Israel, and this is a historic moment for the state of Israel," Netanyahu said. (US officials also said Friday that Sheldon G Adelson, an American known for his hawkish support of Israel, had offered to help pay for the new embassy building.)

The Palestinians issued more condemnations. "The United States has become part of the problem and not the solution," Husam Zomlot, who leads the Palestinian delegation to Washington, told Voice of Palestine Radio.

The US may have the anniversary of Israel's founding in mind as it times the embassy relocation, but the Palestinians view things through a different lens. For them, May 14 is the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, or "catastrophe," when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes amid the hostilities surrounding Israel's establishment.

As it happens, this year's anniversary could also fall on the eve of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, which, depending on the sighting of the new moon, is expected to start at sundown on May 15. Days later, Palestinians are likely to flock for Friday Prayer to the holy site in the Old City that contains Al-Aqsa Mosque, which has often been a flashpoint in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The calendrical coincidence combining nationalism and religion encapsulates the seething divide over Jerusalem, the seat of Israel's government and the location of major holy sites sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews. When the United States recognised Jerusalem, said, Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian professor at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, "That was the major headline."

The relocation of the ambassador, he said, is "a detail" that has not moved many Palestinians. But the combination of the Nakba commemoration and Ramadan could change things. "This," Qaq said, "is the complexity and delicacy of the issue."

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