Unfazed by Western Wall row, Jerusalem mayor still expects Trump to move US embassy
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Interview'If there’s a road for peace, it goes through recognition of Jerusalem as our capital'

Unfazed by Western Wall row, Jerusalem mayor still expects Trump to move US embassy

Nir Barkat: Russia's recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel's capital was 'the first half... I expect much more from the Americans'

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat insisted Wednesday he is unfazed by US officials disputing or refusing to affirm Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall, and said he still expects the Trump administration to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Four days before President Donald Trump is due in Israel for his first-ever visit, Barkat praised Russia’s recent recognition of Western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and said he expected more from the Americans. While it was legitimate for Trump to consult with all regional stakeholders before relocating the embassy, the mayor said that the president’s appointment of several top officials seen as staunchly pro-Israel indicates that he will ultimately order the relocation.

“I wouldn’t give too much value to a statement by a person anywhere in the world,” the mayor said, referring to reports that a US consular official stationed in Jerusalem told his Israeli counterparts during preparations for the Trump visit that the Western Wall is not Israeli territory but “part of the West Bank.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday ducked reporters’ questions as to whether the US considers the Western Wall, the Jewish people’s holiest place of prayer, to be part of Israel.

US National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster speaks during a press briefing at the White House on May 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)
US National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster speaks during a press briefing at the White House on May 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

“Everywhere you put a shovel in the ground there are Jewish roots. So we don’t need anybody to explain to us how the city was and will always be — Jewish, on one hand, but respectful of other religions on the other. I do think that the Trump administration understands that very well,” Barkat told journalists during a briefing on the sixth floor of City Hall.

“We don’t get excited by a statement by a person. Put it in perspective. We heard what Congress has to say, we heard what officials close to Trump have to say. And I believe this administration is much more open to the Israeli government’s point of view and the historical point of view. We’ll see how it develops.”

Barkat, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, also said he is not being pressured by anyone in the Trump administration to slow down construction in East Jerusalem.

Two days after Trump’s inauguration in January, Barkat enthusiastically welcomed the White House’s stated intention to discuss moving the embassy to Jerusalem. He hailed the president as a “true friend of Israel” and a “leader who keeps his promises,” gushing over the “clear message to the world that the US recognizes Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of the State of Israel.”

Jerusalem Mayor and candidate for the municipal elections, Nir Barkat prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem old city on October 22, 2013 during Israel’s municipal elections. Israelis are voting in municipal elections in a poll likely to be shunned by much of the public who see local authorities as tainted by corruption. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat prays at the Western Wall on October 22, 2013 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Wednesday, Barkat sounded a bit more reserved. “It’s challenging to predict,” he said, though adding that White House officials have told him that “there’s no change in the vision” about the Embassy move. “It’s legitimate for him [Trump] to hear everyone before he makes his final decision,” said the mayor. “I still believe that he will move the embassy.”

Barkat named US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman; Trump’s special envoy for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt; and senior advisor Jared Kushner as three “major appointments” proving the president’s pro-Israel bona fides.

“Tell me who you appoint, I tell you what you think. The people he appointed really understand the Middle East quite well,” Barkat said.

Friedman on Wednesday indicated that no decision has been taken yet on the embassy move. “I know the president is working on this and is thinking about it,” the newly installed ambassador told the Israel Hayom daily. “He is consulting with all the appropriate people … and he will make a decision…. It is the president’s job to listen to all those opinions and do what is right for the US.”

Barkat, who said he will enter national politics once he ends his term as Jerusalem mayor, dismissed the most widely cited arguments against moving the embassy. Those who fear violence should know that the last wave of attacks against Israelis started without anybody talking about the embassy, he argued. “For violence to occur, there could be any reason, or no reason,” he said. “If anyone wants to create violence in this region, we will fight them and win.”

New US ambassador to Israel David Friedman stands next to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch (R) while praying at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)
New US ambassador to Israel David Friedman stands next to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch (R) while praying at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Moving the embassy would not complicate efforts to reach Israeli-Palestinian peace, but, on the contrary, could be the first step toward an agreement, he further posited. No deal can be struck before the Palestinians drop their claim for Jerusalem, the mayor added. “There’s not going to be any peace if they don’t recognize Jerusalem as our capital and our right to exist in our country. By stuttering on this point the world is not helping to get a deal.”

He added: “If there’s a road for peace, it goes through recognition of Jerusalem as the capital [of Israel]. Not recognizing it defers a reasonably good deal in our region.”

Asked by The Times of Israel about Russia’s recent recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he replied, “It’s a good beginning. It’s the first half.”

But, Barkat added, “I expect much more from the American administration. My expectation is for them to go back and read the Bible, to best understand our history. If anybody has a claim to all of the city of Jerusalem and all of the land of Israel, it’s the Jewish state. That’s the claim. It’s in the Bible.”

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