President Trump announced Wednesday that the United States formally recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that he intends to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The decision has numerous important symbolic implications for the Middle East peace process.
But in a city where land rights are often controversial, moving the embassy to Jerusalem is also a practical problem, too: Where exactly would this new embassy go? Trump, a real estate mogul-turned-world leader, may soon discover that finding a location for a new embassy is no easy task. Although the White House has suggested the embassy could be moved within three to four years, some think that that time frame is unrealistic.
“That's a very optimistic estimate,” said Daniel Shapiro, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama.
Shapiro, who is now senior fellow with the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and has advocated for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel under certain circumstances, said he suspects that the move would take five to 10 years.
In theory, there is land in Jerusalem set aside for a new U.S. Embassy. On President Ronald Reagan's last day in office in 1989, then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel William Brown signed a contract for a patch of land in West Jerusalem for $1 a year on a 99-year lease. This space was later zoned for “diplomatic purposes” by the Israeli government with the intention of building a U.S. Embassy there.
Nowadays, this land sits in an increasingly desirable part of Jerusalem on the edge of the Talpiot neighborhood by Baka. “It's a great area,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was an adviser to Secretary of State John F. Kerry on the Middle East peace process. “There's been a lot of apartment buildings built around there in anticipation of a U.S. Embassy.”
The earmarked land still sits uninhabited and forlorn. A reporter from the Times of Israel described seeing “pieces of an old shoe, broken Heineken bottles, the rusty innersprings of an old mattress that somebody forgot here years ago,” when he visited last year. And despite the Trump administration's decision to move the embassy, this land may be unlikely to see a brighter future.
Although it was initially hoped during the 1990s that a U.S. Embassy could sit there, after the al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, new safety standards were put in place that require embassies to be set back 100 feet from any adjacent roads due to the risk of car bombs and other attacks. “With the new rules, that land is not big enough,” Shapiro said. For context, the space in Talpiot is seven to 14 acres, according to different sources, while the new U.S. Embassy in Lebanon sits on 43 acres.
There is another potential option: The United States could use a building it already has in Jerusalem. The State Department operates a number of consulate buildings in Jerusalem that provide services to the city as well as the Palestinian territories and which could theoretically be repurposed as an embassy. The oldest is the U.S. Consulate General building, built in 1912, which sits at 18 Agron Rd., close to Jerusalem's Old City.
Another, newer U.S. Consular Section facility is in Jerusalem's Arnona neighborhood, not far from the leased land in Talpiot. Unlike the Agron Road building and the Talpiot land, which lie well within the “green line” that designates the parts of Jerusalem that were under Israeli control before the 1967 war, the Arnona facility straddles the 1967 border between Israeli control and what was then a demilitarized zone after the 1949 armistice agreement.
There has been widespread speculation that rather than build an entirely new facility to serve as a U.S. Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, the State Department would commandeer one of the consulate buildings — an easier and quicker option in several ways. Most speculation has centered on the newer building in Arnona, which is considerably bigger than the Consulate General building on Agron Road and may be able to house more staffers if the embassy moved from Tel Aviv.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported last year that Jerusalem officials stated the building was specifically designed so it could one day be an embassy.
Although a State Department spokeswoman declined to say how many people worked in the Arnona complex, reports from the State Department's Office of the Inspector General said there were 582 U.S. consulate staff spread across Jerusalem in 2017, compared to 960 staff at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Shapiro said moving the ambassador to a consulate was possible, although it would probably only be on a temporary basis while a new embassy is built, and would require the bending of such rules. However, he added that the language being used by the Trump administration suggested that such a move was unlikely. Makovsky said that the White House had told him Tuesday that the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, would not be moving to a consulate.
Instead, Makovsky said, the White House told him that it was looking into buying plots of land. Exactly where is unconfirmed, and it is unclear whether land adjacent to a consulate or near the Talpiot land could be purchased. “I don't know how many parcels there are in such a choice location,” Makovsky said of Talpiot. “I wonder if they will have to go looking in areas they haven't looked before.”
The State Department did not respond to a query about the Talpiot land or the time frame of the move, but in comments to reporters Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to concede that the move won't be easy and that the process of finding a new plot of land would begin immediately. “Obviously, there's a lot of planning that goes into it,” Tillerson told reporters at a U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany. “It's going to take some time.”
In the end, it's possible that any new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem may end up a little closer to Tel Aviv than many would expect. “I'm sure the Israeli government will work very hard to find a new property” for a new U.S. Embassy, Shapiro said. However, he added, “real estate in Jerusalem is complicated. It's a compressed city. It's possible that the embassy could end up some distance away from the city center.”
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