Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night applauded Washington’s announcement a day earlier that it will begin moving its embassy to Jerusalem in phases, beginning already in May, and not waiting as was expected to the end of 2019 or beyond.
“This is a great moment for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said of State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert’s statement Friday that the US plans to open its new embassy in May to coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary.
“President [Donald] Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem will make our Independence Day celebration even happier,” the prime minister said. “Thank you, President Trump, for your leadership and for your friendship.”
Nauert said the embassy “will initially be located in the Arnona neighborhood, in the building that currently houses the consular operations of the US Consulate-General Jerusalem.”
Initially, Nauert said, the interim embassy in the Arnona facility, which will continue to offer consular services, will contain office space for US Ambassador David Friedman and a small staff. By the end of next year, she said, the intention is to open an embassy annex on the Arnona compound that will provide Friedman and his staff with expanded interim office space.
“In parallel,” she said, “we have started the search for a site for our permanent embassy to Israel, the planning and construction of which will be a longer-term undertaking. We are excited about taking this historic step, and look forward with anticipation to the May opening.”
Nauert stressed that the Consulate-General in Jerusalem, which traditionally deals with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, “will continue to operate as an independent mission with an unchanged mandate, from its historic Agron Road location.”
Trump announced on December 6 that he would initiate moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a decision that thrilled Israel but infuriated the Palestinians and was condemned by much of the Muslim world.
Friday’s decision marks a significant shortening of the time frame for the embassy move. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said immediately after Trump’s announcement that the embassy would not open in Jerusalem until 2020, if not later, and Vice President Mike Pence predicted last month in the Knesset that the move would take place by the end of 2019.
But US officials told The Jerusalem Post that the existing plan to convert the Arnona facility before the end of this calendar year – a midterm election year in the US – has been in the works for over a month.
Trump touted his decision in a speech to the CPAC conservative action group in Washington on Friday.
“I said, ‘I have to do it because it’s the right thing to do,’” Trump said of his conversations with world leaders leading up to the decision, many of whom asked him not to move the embassy to Jerusalem. “The campaign against it was so incredible. But you know what, the campaign for it was also incredible.”
Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer tweeted: “70 years apart. Two historic decisions. One united capital,” referencing president Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel on May 14, 1948, together with the expected May 14 embassy move to Jerusalem.
Netanyahu, who is scheduled to meet with Trump in Washington on March 5, is expected to raise the idea of Trump coming to Jerusalem for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Trump was last in Israel in May.
Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon also praised the move, saying it “is a testament to the unbreakable alliance and true friendship between the US and Israel.”
He urged other members of the United Nations to follow suit, saying that the world needs to acknowledge the reality on the ground.
“The time is now for all UN member states to follow in the footsteps of the US and declare that they, too, recognize Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the State of Israel,” Danon said.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, slammed the decision, with top negotiator Saeb Erekat saying it only demonstrates America’s resolve to violate international law.
“The US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and now to move its embassy on the eve of marking 70 years since the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of at least 418 Palestinian villages, and the forcible displacement of two-thirds of our people, shows the determination of the US administration to violate international law, destroy the two-state solution and provoke the feelings of the Palestinian people, as well as of all Arabs, Muslims and Christians around the globe,” Erekat said in a statement.
Palestinians refer to Israel’s establishment in 1948 as the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe. Nakba Day is annually marked on May 15, the day after the date on the Gregorian calendar when Israel declared independence.
Erekat said that moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem is a violation of United Nations Security Resolution 478. This resolution, which was approved in 1980, called on states that have established diplomatic missions in Jerusalem to withdraw them.
A Hamas spokesman also lashed out at the US for its decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem in May.
“Relocating the American Embassy to Jerusalem on the anniversary of our people’s expulsion and catastrophe represents a bold challenge to our people and an assault on its rights and Islamic holy sites,” Hamas spokesman Abdel Latif al-Qanou said in a statement.
Turkey, which in December hosted a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation of more than 50 countries to condemn the US move, said on Saturday that the decision showed that the US insisted on damaging peace. A statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry said the decision was “very worrying.”
Among Knesset members, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) praised the Trump administration for its “historic decision,” tweeting: “Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem by the coming Yom Ha’atzma’ut [Independence Day] is a wonderful gift for the celebrations of Israel’s 70th.”
Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren (Kulanu) tweeted: “Thank you America and thank you President Trump for announcing the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. What better way to celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday and to reaffirm our historic alliance with America!”
On the other side of the political spectrum, Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi said the decision to move the embassy was “bizarre and messianic,” and the timing of the move is “strange and raises questions if [Trump] wants to help a friend in trouble,” an apparent reference to Netanyahu-related corruption probes.
“President Trump and his government have proven once again that they are the ultimate improvisers. They’re improvising and shooting themselves in the leg. They are no longer mediators,” Tibi said.
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg said, “We all hope to have Jerusalem be the capital recognized by the nations of the world, but the decision to move the embassy unilaterally will not help that goal. It will do the opposite. To see all the embassies move to Jerusalem... we need to reach a peace agreement, end the occupation and set recognized borders.”
Lahav Harkov, Daniel Roth in New York and Reuters contributed to this report.