President Trump has been telling friendly audiences that he is proudly fulfilling a campaign promise with the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, and that his real estate savvy is already saving the taxpayers a buck on the new location.
A campaign rally crowd gave Trump lengthy applause when he said the new embassy will open Monday, and on the cheap.
“I said, ‘How much?,’ something other presidents don’t ask. They said, ‘Sir, $1 billion,’ ” Trump said in theatrical disbelief.
“For $150,000, I could fix it. It’ll be beautiful,” Trump said at the rally Thursday in Elkhart, Ind.
The president said nothing about another campaign promise to seek a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, or the fact that meeting the first promise has, at least for now, foreclosed a chance for the second.
A regional peace initiative led by presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has been shelved because of Palestinian anger over the shift in decades of U.S. policy regarding the embassy, which held that Jerusalem’s disputed status was an issue to be resolved through negotiations.
Keeping the U.S. Embassy an hour away in Tel Aviv was a signal that the United States would not prejudge competing Israeli and Palestinian claims to land and sites in the holy city.
Before the embassy announcement, the Trump peace plan was widely expected to be unveiled in early 2018, with Israeli-Palestinian talks to follow. Trump spoke expansively last year of a chance to make “the ultimate deal,” succeeding where others had fallen short.
Palestinian leaders called the embassy move a betrayal and an abdication of the U.S. role as a neutral broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have boycotted meetings with American officials since the move was announced in December. None of the senior U.S. officials attending the embassy opening on Monday, including Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, are expected to meet with Palestinian leaders.
The opening is timed to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary, on May 14.
Trump is not attending, and neither are Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose deputy John Sullivan is leading the delegation. The relatively low-key delegation is a signal that the White House retains hope for the peace proposal this year, although there are no outward signs of progress.
U.S. officials say the plan is not dead and will be presented “at the right time.” Trump has barely mentioned it publicly in months, although he sounded upbeat when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White house in early March.
“We’re working on it very hard,” Trump said then. “It would be a great achievement — and even from a humanitarian standpoint — what better if we could make peace between Israel and the Palestinians? And I can tell you, we are working very hard on doing that. And I think we have a very good chance.”
Trump, who got numerous details wrong in his account of the embassy’s cost, cites the relocation of the mission as an example of his bolder leadership style.
“America is respected again. Different ballgame,” Trump said at the campaign rally.
“After the promises of many administrations and presidents, and that they never did it — they campaigned on the promise, they never did it — next week, we will finally open the American Embassy in Jerusalem,” he said.
Trump said he told U.S. Ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman to spend a little more — maybe $300,000 — and “it’ll be beautiful.”
The $1 billion estimate is for the planned replacement of an existing consular services site in southern Jerusalem, on land that was under Israeli sovereignty before 1967 and, the Israelis argue, is likely remain in Israel’s hands under any future peace agreement.
Under plans presented to Congress this year, the new embassy would initially be housed in temporary quarters at that office site. The cost would be $300,000 to $500,000, the figure Trump appeared to mention at the rally. He suggested the renovated building would then become permanent, saving money, but it is not clear that the structure would satisfy legal and logistical requirements for moving most operations from Tel Aviv.
Other administration officials frame the embassy decision as a common-sense recognition that Jerusalem already functions as the Israeli capital and would remain so in any negotiation. In the face of criticism from Europe and the Muslim world, the White House has argued that the embassy decision would help peace prospects rather than hurt them.
That idea won the surprise backing Saturday of a U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama. Dan Shapiro wrote in a column for CNN.com that “the shattering of this taboo is useful in its own right” and “helps return the search for a resolution to this conflict to its origins,” in the partition of Palestine.
“The U.N. understood in 1947 that the conflict required the creation of two states, which logically means Jews and Arab must share the land,” Shapiro wrote.
No other countries have their embassies in Jerusalem, though some did operate from there until the 1980s. On Wednesday, Guatemala will open its embassy in Jerusalem following the U.S. move.
In 70 years of Israeli history and the 51 years since Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank during the Six Day War, the conflict is no closer to a resolution, Trump’s ambassador, Friedman, said Friday.
“One of the things that we thought was important in terms of the conflict was to look at the various leverage points and to see how we thought we could adjust those to create a better dynamic for peace,” Friedman said.
“What the president saw was that the Palestinians essentially had a veto over the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Friedman said. “You’re empowering the leverage in a way that’s not helpful.”
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat last week accused the Trump administration of violating international law and its “own commitments towards the peace process.”
“As Washington pursues a policy of encouragement of international anarchy and disregard for organizations and international law, we call upon all diplomatic corps, civil society organizations, and religious authorities to boycott the inauguration ceremony,” Erekat said.
Attending the ceremony would “lend legitimacy to an illegal decision and to continued Israeli policies of occupation, colonization, and annexation,” Erekat said.
Friedman, speaking to reporters from Tel Aviv, said diplomats from other nations were not invited to the opening, “so it would be incorrect to report that any other nation declined our invitation because we simply didn’t send any out.”
Some European and other diplomats have declined to attend a separate celebration sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, a U.S. group that favors a two-state peace settlement, called the embassy move a “suicidal act” that blocks the United States from playing any role in helping forge a deal of the magnitude and complexity that Trump seeks.
“The credibility of this administration as a potential broker is lost and irreparable,” he said. “If it does put forth any sort of a proposal, the most one can expect is it will be a recitation of the right-wing Israeli talking points — proposals that have been aired out in Israel for some time but do not bear any resemblance to anything a Palestinian representative can accept.”
Pompeo has called on Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, but he did not meet with them when he visited Israel on his first trip as secretary last month.
Pompeo appears to be positioning the State Department to resume a more traditional leading role in the Middle East portfolio, particularly the peace process. Kushner’s profile in the region is lower than it was last year, although he and U.S. negotiator Jason D. Greenblatt recently hosted a large regional conference at the White House on the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
Pompeo also visited Saudi Arabia and Jordan on his first trip as secretary of state.
In Amman, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi made a point of saying that Jordan considers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be “the main cause of instability in the region” and that the goal should be a sovereign, independent Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. That is the central Palestinian demand from a settlement.
“The two-state solution remains the only path to that peace,” Safadi said, with Pompeo standing alongside.
Pompeo said the United States was not taking any final position on “boundaries or borders” and would support a two-state solution “if the parties agree to it.”
Friedman released a video Friday on Facebook showing workers making final preparations for the embassy opening, including affixing a large U.S. government seal to a wall.
“This year, thanks to the U.S. administration, the courage, the vision of President Donald Trump, we can say . . . this year in Jerusalem,” Friedman says in the video.
That is a play on “next year in Jerusalem,” the traditional Passover Seder close.
Israelis are delighted by the embassy move, which Netanyahu has cast as an endorsement of his stewardship of the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
On May 7, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat hung the first street signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English pointing to the relocated U.S. Embassy.
“This is not a dream — it’s reality!” Barkat said in a statement. “I thank President Trump for making this historic moment come to fruition. Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people — and the world is beginning to recognize this fact.”
Trump seemed to have another kind of recognition in mind when he spoke of the embassy opening during the Indiana rally.
“I said, ‘When is this going to be open?’ ” Trump said. “They said, ‘Anywhere from five to 10 years.’ ” Potentially too long for Trump to oversee the project. Also too long to take credit, Trump suggested.
“So, so we open the embassy next week.”
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. Carol Morello contributed to this report.