US brings forward opening of Jerusalem embassy to May

WASHINGTON • The United States said it will relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in May, bringing forward the contested move to coincide with the Jewish state's 70th birthday - and enraging Palestinians, who called it a "blatant provocation".

Palestinians object to recognition of the disputed city as Israel's capital and say the embassy move could destroy a two-state solution to the decades-old Middle East conflict.

Palestinians also object to the date chosen for the embassy move - they call May 14, the day Israel declared independence in 1948, Naqba, or their "day of catastrophe".

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians see the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.

US State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said in a statement on Friday: "In May, the United States plans to open a new US Embassy in Jerusalem. The opening will coincide with Israel's 70th anniversary."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the announcement and thanked US President Donald Trump for his "leadership" and his "friendship".

"It will turn Israel's 70th Independence Day into an even greater national celebration," said Mr Netanyahu, whose right-wing government is facing an uncertain future because of corruption allegations and police inquiries facing the Prime Minister.

The embassy move is expected to complicate efforts to restart peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians - and jeopardise the traditional, if disputed, US role as an "honest broker" in efforts to resolve one of the world's most intractable conflicts.

Until now, the US Embassy has been located in Tel Aviv, with a separate consulate-general located in Jerusalem that represents US interests in the Palestinian territories.

The new embassy will be initially located in a US consular building in Jerusalem's Arnona neighbourhood while Washington searches for a permanent location, added Ms Nauert.

"By the end of next year, we intend to open a new embassy Jerusalem annex on the Arnona compound that will provide the ambassador and his team with expanded interim office space," she said.

Mr Trump broke with decades of policy in December to announce US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and a pledge to move the embassy, drawing near global condemnation, enraging Palestinians and sparking days of unrest in the Palestinian territories.

The US decision ruptured generations of international consensus that Jerusalem's status should be settled as part of a two-state peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The hardest deal to make of any kind is between the Israelis and Palestinians," Mr Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday. "We're actually making great headway. Jerusalem was the right thing to do."

The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) immediately decried Washington's embassy announcement, calling it a "provocation to all Arabs".

"The American administration's decisions to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and choose the Palestinian people's Naqba as the date for this step is a blatant violation of international law," the PLO's No. 2 official Saeb Erekat told Agence France-Presse.

He said the result would be "the destruction of the two-state option, as well as a blatant provocation to all Arabs and Muslims".

Israel follows the Jewish lunar calendar, so this year's official independence celebration falls on April 19.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 25, 2018, with the headline 'US brings forward opening of Jerusalem embassy to May'. Print Edition | Subscribe