One of President Donald Trump’s most contentious foreign policy projects, the inauguration of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, is being carried out Monday even as peace in the Middle East seems more elusive than ever.
"Today we open the United States embassy in Jerusalem, Israel," U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said at the beginning of the inaugural ceremony, attended by a U.S. delegation from Washington and Israeli leaders.
While Trump, who vowed to move the embassy from Tel Aviv during his campaign, isn’t attending, he’ll address invitees to the designation ceremony via video conference, according to two U.S. officials. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will be among the U.S. delegation.
“It is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump declared on Dec. 6, saying that he hoped the move could spur renewed peace negotiations. But the decision angered much of the Middle East, including U.S. allies, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responded by breaking off all contact with the Trump administration.
“It ended the role of the United States as an honest broker,” Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Abbas and former chief negotiator with Israel, told reporters last week as he stood on a hillside between the diplomatic compound and the east Jerusalem Palestinian village of Sur Baher.
The opening also comes amid heightened tensions across the region. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s forces have stepped up attacks on Iranian targets in neighboring Syria over the past week, after saying Tehran-backed troops there targeted Israel with a missile barrage. Iranian officials rejected that accusation and are fuming about Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and five other world powers.
The U.S.-Israeli festivities opening the compound on Monday precede memorial events observed by the Palestinians to mark the “Nakba,” or the catastrophe of their displacement at Israel’s creation in 1948. In the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of Palestinians are preparing to march to the border fence separating them from Israel and concluding six weeks of confrontations with Israeli forces. At least 50 Palestinians were killed in the first seven weeks of protests, and hundreds were injured by live fire, according to Gaza health officials.
The U.S. expects about 800 people to attend the opening ceremony, Ambassador David Friedman said on a call with reporters on Friday. Friedman, like other U.S. officials, insisted that the move will help the peace process, regardless of what Palestinian leaders have said.
“In the long run, we’re convinced that this decision creates an opportunity and a platform to proceed with a peace process on the basis of realities rather than fantasies, and we’re fairly optimistic that this decision will ultimately create greater stability rather than less,” Friedman said. “We remain optimistic that we will make significant progress.”
That wasn’t the view of Shaath, a Palestinian elder statesman, as he gazed up at a rock-strewn slope where gardeners planted hundreds of red, white and blue pansies. Palestinians, backed by the majority of the international community, say the U.S. move preempts decades of peace talks, which left a decision on the final status of Jerusalem for negotiations between the two sides.
Jerusalem is considered holy to three of the world’s major religions, and Palestinians have long sought to have East Jerusalem serve as the capital of an independent Palestinian state. The U.S. has said the decision to relocate the embassy doesn’t prejudge the final outcome of the city’s status.
Before Trump, U.S. presidential candidates had for decades vowed they’d move the embassy, but none did out of concern it would disrupt the prospect for peace. Moving the embassy is a requirement of a 1990s U.S. law that was regularly waived by Trump’s predecessors, going back to former President Bill Clinton.
The Trump administration bypassed years of costly construction on a new embassy by essentially re-purposing an existing consular building. Since the compound isn’t large enough to host the entire staff currently based at the embassy in Tel Aviv, Friedman and other officials will commute back and forth on a regular basis.
While Netanyahu enthusiastically greeted Trump’s decision to move the embassy, some Jerusalem residents have gone to court to try to stop it.
“There are beautiful views here that will be blocked by the big wall they’re planning to build,” said Naomi Schachter, who’s sought to block the project with other neighbors. “On the other hand, some say this is going to be great for real estate values because its going to be such a secure area and people who work in the embassy are going to be looking for places to live.”
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