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New U.S. embassy in Jerusalem: A stone plaque and $400,000 in renovations, for now

Israeli soldiers clashed with Palestinian protesters on May 14, the same day the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem opened. The move upended decades-long U.S. policy. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

JERUSALEM — Standing in the yard outside the soon-to-be U.S. Embassy last week, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman watched as a worker positioned a newly chiseled stone plaque on the wall. Friedman held up his phone and snapped a picture.

For all the fanfare surrounding the opening of the new embassy in Jerusalem this coming Monday, the hanging of the plaque on what is currently a consular services building is one of the few changes that will initially take place.

The first phase involves shifting just the ambassador and his core staff from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — less than a half-dozen people — according to a U.S. official. That first move, including building modifications and additional security, cost less than $400,000, another U.S. official said.

The move is deeply symbolic, upending the decades-old U.S. policy of withholding recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital until the final status of the contested city is worked out in a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

About 700 guests, mostly Americans, including members of Congress and representatives of organizations with close ties to Israel, are expected to attend the embassy opening, alongside senior Israeli officials. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump will head the U.S. delegation, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Middle East peace envoy Jason Green­blatt, the White House said.

Israel is bracing for demonstrations at the time of the opening, which comes just a day before Palestinians mark the anniversary of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” in which they lost their land when the Israeli state was created in 1948.

Palestinian officials have called on diplomats, religious officials and civil society organizations to boycott the opening ceremony, describing the move as illegal and a blow to peace efforts.

“Those who attend the ceremony will thus be sending an ominous message, a message that they encourage flagrant violations of international law and the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people,” Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat said in a statement.

The yellow stone building at 14 David Flusser St. was opened in 2010, a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly building where services such as passport renewals for U.S. citizens and visa applications by local residents are provided.

The site is the “newest and most secure U.S. facility in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” one of the U.S. officials said.

The Arnona neighborhood was on the front line during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, and the building straddles the armistice lines drawn the following year between Israel and Jordan, with the property jutting into what was once no-man’s land. Israeli Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon and historian Josef Klausner later became two of its most famous residents.

U.S. Embassy in Israel will move to Jerusalem in mid-May, State Department says

Now, a new asphalt access road, paid for by a grant from the Israeli Transportation Ministry, snakes up to its side. It is one of the few modifications made during the first phase of the move. Construction of a planned 10- to 15-foot-high security wall has not yet started.

Workers are putting the finishing touches on the ambassador’s office and on a small office for his staff, U.S. officials said. The two U.S. officials who described embassy preparations spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing protocol.

The staff of the consular offices will become embassy employees, while extensions are built to house additional employees.

President Trump had said he brought down the cost of the new embassy from an estimated $1 billion to $250,000. But in late April, Trump said he had budgeted $300,000 to $400,000.

That cost, however, does not cover the transfer of a dozen additional staff members expected to move to the site over the following year and of the building extension to be constructed for them. Nor does the figure account for the final embassy itself. 

U.S. officials said they could not provide details of later stages.

The embassy in Tel Aviv has 850 staff members, and it won’t be until an entirely new embassy building is finished in Jerusalem in seven to 10 years that a significant number of employees would move to the new location.

Whether that final embassy will be in Arnona is yet to be decided. The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which is responsible for U.S. relations with the Palestinians, will continue to function with an unchanged mandate at its central Jerusalem location.

At the fence that divides Israel from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army is bracing for further demonstrations. Israeli troops have fatally shot dozens of protesters on the border during a six-week-long “March of Return” against the loss of Palestinian land, which is expected to culminate on Nakba Day, May 15.

In Jerusalem, local law enforcement is working in coordination with the U.S. Embassy staff to ensure security ahead of the embassy opening, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. He said police were preparing for possible unrest next week.

“We don’t have any specific information that something will happen,” Rosenfeld said. “But the police are ready for any protests or unrest that might take place.”

The arrival of the embassy has been met with mixed feelings in the Arnona neighborhood. A group of 20 residents, assisted by the left-wing Israeli group Ir Amim, petitioned the Supreme Court to block the embassy move, objecting to planned changes such as the security wall and an increase in closed-circuit television cameras. They challenged the state over the urgency of the move, but the petition was rejected May 1.

“My husband thinks it’s a potential security issue, that it will make the area more vulnerable,” said Shira Hasson, 38, as she sat outside a small bakery just up the hill from the new embassy site. “But it’s not the most worrisome thing on our minds.”

As she discussed the concerns, Bracha Meyer, listening nearby, felt compelled to interrupt.

“You should be thanking God that Jerusalem is being recognized as Israel’s capital and stop complaining,” said the 65-year-old, sporting a black beret.

She later explained that the security wall was no concern. “Blocking what view? Looking at the Arabs? There are so many vagabonds and Arabs lying around on the grass,” she said, gesturing toward the valley that separates Arnona from the nearest Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

She later explained how she believed that the embassy move was part of divine prophecy, a view expressed by some Jews and evangelical Christians. “The messiah is on the doorstep,” she said.