US expected to open embassy in Jerusalem in May, official says

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States is expected to open its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem in May, a US official told Reuters on Friday (Feb 23), a move from Tel Aviv that reverses decades of US policy and is bound to trouble US allies who have already objected.

US President Donald Trump announced last December that the United States recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating even Washington’s Arab allies and dismaying Palestinians who want the eastern part of the city as their capital.

No other country has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Trump’s decision has sown discord between the United States and the European Union over Middle East peace efforts.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that most embassy employees will remain in Tel Aviv.

“Come May, we’re moving the ambassador and a small team to Arnona,” the compound that currently houses the consular operations of the US Consulate General in Jerusalem, the official said.

“What will happen by May, is a sign will be put up in Arnona identifying the facility as the US Embassy,” the official added.

Phase two of the plan will include a search for a secure location to build a new embassy, said another official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

 

The consulate in East Jerusalem will continue to serve Palestinians, and for security reasons US Ambassador David Friedman will continue living in the residence in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, and commute to the relocated embassy, the second official said.

Palestinians reacted to the news with anger.

“This is an unacceptable step. Any unilateral move will not give legitimacy to anyone and will be an obstacle to any effort to create peace in the region,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, who is in the United States until Saturday.

A May opening is earlier than expected – US Vice-President Mike Pence told the Israeli parliament last month that the move would take place by the end of 2019.

The opening will coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, the first official said.

An Israeli government source said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is scheduled to visit the White House on March 5, is in contact with the Trump administration and will respond when the United States makes an announcement.

In a speech on Friday to a gathering of conservatives in suburban Washington, Trump recalled his controversial decision, saying he withstood enormous pressure to make the move.

“I put the word out that I may do it. I was hit by more countries and more pressure and more people calling, begging me ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it,’” Trump said.

“I said we have to do it. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do, we have to do it. And I did it.” Clashes erupted in Gaza and the West Bank earlier on Friday, in a weekly protest against Trump’s stance on Jerusalem.

Palestinian health officials have said at least 20 Palestinians, most of them in Gaza, have been killed in protests against Trump’s decision since the Dec 6 announcement.