JERUSALEM — The United States will open its embassy in Jerusalem next year, Vice President Pence said Monday, accelerating plans that have sparked fury from Palestinians and widespread condemnation in the region.
Speaking in Israel's parliament, or Knesset, Pence looked notably more at ease than during earlier meetings in Egypt and Jordan, where he has been forced to defend the controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. He voiced his wholehearted support for Israel.
"Jerusalem is Israel's capital — and, as such, President Trump has directed the State Department to immediately begin preparations to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem," Pence said to applause. "In the weeks ahead, our administration will advance its plan to open the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem — and that United States embassy will open before the end of next year."
When President Trump announced the decision in December, U.S. officials indicated that it may take three or four years to move the embassy. That decision was made in the best interests of peace, Pence said.
But it was difficult Monday to see how it could spur progress between the two sides. Israeli Arab lawmakers staged a walkout at the beginning of Pence's speech, resulting in a small scuffle. One held up a sign reading "Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine" in Arabic and English, before being pushed out of the chamber by security.
Palestinian officials also snubbed his visit. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday was instead visiting Brussels, where he urged members of the European Union to recognize a Palestinian state along 1967 borders. Abbas described the E.U. as the "main partner" for building a Palestinian state.
The decision to speed up the embassy move is likely to further rankle Palestinians, who consider East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state and say that Trump's presidency has been defined by threats on their side, but incentives and rewards for Israel.
Pence, an evangelical Christian, was a driving force behind the administration's decision on Jerusalem and flanked Trump as he made the announcement. In his own past statements, he has gone further than Trump, describing Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital.
"The messianic discourse of Pence is a gift to extremists and has proven that the U.S. administration is part of the problem rather than the solution," said the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. "His message to the rest of the world is clear: Violate international law and resolutions, and the U.S. will reward you," he said.
After Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December, the State Department began looking for a possible site on which to build an embassy to replace the existing one in Tel Aviv. Nearly every country that has diplomatic relations with Israel is based in Tel Aviv on the principle that Jerusalem's status should be decided in negotiations with the Palestinians, who desire East Jerusalem as their capital.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said construction could take several years, because of security requirements put in place after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Now, Embassy buildings must be set back at least 100 feet from the street as protection against truck bombs. Consequently, many new missions are built far from the center of congested capitals.
"The secretary and the vice president are on the same page regarding the importance of security," said Steven Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. "I wouldn't expect any announcement to suggest security elements will be rushed."
For weeks, the administration weighed whether to build an entirely new embassy, which could take as long as a decade and be very expensive, or whether to retrofit one of the consulate buildings in Jerusalem, at least temporarily.
According to a person close to the administration who spoke anonymously to discuss private deliberations, the focus recently was on how much time it would take to retrofit an existing building permanently so that the embassy could be moved more quickly.
One faction believed that the construction would take until next year to complete. Another, which included presidential adviser Jared Kushner and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, pushed for it to be done before the end of 2018.
Trump appeared to be comfortable with a timetable stretching into 2019 and as recently as Friday, a senior State Department official told reporters that designing and building a permanent embassy would be "a matter of years, and not weeks or months," though the official acknowledged that an "interim" facility was being considered. The official said the decision was Tillerson's to make, and he had not done so yet.
Goldstein said that while Tillerson has not signed off on the plan yet, he will approve it once he is assured it will be safe for those who work in and visit the facility.
He said the plan is that a consular building will be retrofitted and will become the embassy, not a temporary facility.
"We don't have a plan at current to build a new embassy," he said.
Another State Department official said the building being eyed is the U.S. consular service building in the Arnona neighborhood, which was opened in 2010 on a site originally slated for the embassy.
The building straddles the "green line" that marked Israel's pre-1967 border and what was then a demilitarized zone.
It was unclear why the time frame has changed so suddenly, and why the announcement was made by Pence, not Tillerson. In general, however, the White House has assumed responsibility for trying to resume peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
Palestinian factions have called for a strike and demonstrations on Tuesday. A few dozen demonstrators gathered in Bethlehem on Sunday night, while a small protest took place in the Palestinian city of Nablus on Monday. Palestinians are already incensed by an earlier U.S. decision to cut aid to the U.N. agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian officials have said that while the United States cannot be considered an "honest broker" for the peace process, they would be open to an international process in which Washington was involved.
During a news conference with Abbas on Monday, the E.U.'s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, told reporters that the 28-member bloc is committed to a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital. Abbas is also pressing for recognition. Slovenia has submitted a draft resolution to its parliament on the recognition of a Palestinian state, according to Rahim al-Farra, the Palestinian Ambassador to the E.U.
Hanan Ashrawi, one of the longtime Palestinian negotiators, said that billing Pence's visit to the region as support for the peace process was "ridiculous."
"The American side cannot talk about the peace process after it undermined it by declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," Ashrawi told the official Voice of Palestine radio station Monday.
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst who was a negotiator during both Republican and Democratic administrations, said the decision appears to have been made to satisfy Israel supporters for the time being because a permanent embassy cannot be built before Trump's term ends.
"They're trying to send the unmistakable signal this is not imminent," he said. "But they want to demonstrate to the base they're serious about it. They bought a year."
Miller also said the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital has so angered Palestinians that it is difficult to move forward with a peace plan.
"In fact, it's likely to convince them that even if they get into a process, they will have a unilateral act by the United States within a year that drives home the point that whatever happens in negotiations, Jerusalem is off the table," he said.
Pence's arrival in the country on Sunday night was notably low key, and he was met at the airport by a few government officials but not top Israeli leaders. The Israeli government gave Pence a full head-of-state welcome ceremony — complete with military band — at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on Monday morning.
"Mr. Vice President, I've had the privilege over the years of standing here with hundreds of world leaders and welcome them, all of them, to Israel's capital, Jerusalem," Netanyahu later told Pence before beginning a meeting in his office.
"This is the first time that I stand here where both leaders can say those three words."
He described the U.S.-Israel relationship as a "remarkable alliance," which has "never been stronger."
Pence thanked Netanyahu for his "warm hospitality" and said he looked forward to speaking to him about the "opportunity for peace."
"I'm here, standing with you, looking forward to speaking about our common interests in security and prosperity in Israel and the United States of America," he said.
"But I also am here hopeful, hopeful that we are at the dawn of a new era of renewed discussions to achieve a peaceful resolution to the decades-long conflict that has affected this region," he added.
Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, a collection of Arab-Israeli parties that staged the walkout Monday, has said the vice president is dangerous to the region because of his strong ties to U.S. evangelicals and hard-line supporters of Israel.
It is those beliefs that have left Israelis divided on the nature of his visit and his unwavering support for Israel. Pence has visited Israel three times in the past.
Former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas, writing in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, said he believes Pence's trip has no clear agenda other than his evangelical Christian bonds with Israel.
"He loves the Jewish people because it has a purpose in history, and he loves Israel because it serves temporarily as the home of the Jewish people before they convert to Christianity after Armageddon," wrote Pinkas.
In Israel Hayom, a newspaper owned by GOP casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and fiercely supportive of Netanyahu, commentator Dror Eydar wrote about the important role that evangelicals have come to play in the Trump administration's policies on Israel and Jerusalem.
He captured the position of Israel's right wing: that despite the ultimate goal of some evangelicals to see Jews convert to Christianity to fulfill their prophecy, they are among the few groups around the world that actually support Israel.
"This was also the secret to their tireless push to recognize Jerusalem as our capital and to relocate the U.S. embassy there. From their standpoint, Donald Trump's election to the presidency was blessed by heaven when he publicly declared that he would move the embassy to Jerusalem in his term," he wrote.
Morello reported from Washington. Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Quentin Aries in Brussels contributed to this report.