After seaside digs dumped by Trump, US ambassador roosts at Jerusalem rental instead

2017 decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and sell the longtime ambassadorial residence led Tom Nides on a hunt for a suitable property in the capital

The home of US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides sits between two taller buildings on the main road of the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem, June 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
The home of US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides sits between two taller buildings on the main road of the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem, June 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

AP — There’s no plaque on the gate of the US ambassador’s new residence in Jerusalem, no Stars and Stripes visible, no official listing as a notable overseas property.

The official residence of the American envoy is a rental and temporary, officials said, secured after two years of house-hunting in the wake of then-president Donald Trump’s controversial decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Ambassador Tom Nides moved into the sleekly renovated villa in the capital’s leafy German Colony sometime in the spring. Local real estate agents estimate its value at around $23 million, and its owner and the embassy confirmed it is being leased as the US envoy’s official residence.

Emek Refaim Street is the latest stop for the American ambassador’s home on a more than three-year migration from the seaside cliffs north of Tel Aviv to tension-filled Jerusalem.

The journey reflects the Trump administration’s divisive legacy and the reluctance of President Joe Biden — who will visit the region next month — to roil relations with Israel over the issue.

Trump upended decades of US policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, drawing plaudits from many Israelis and infuriating the Palestinians, who view the city as the future capital of their own state.

A new road sign indicating the way to the new US embassy in Jerusalem is seen on May 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

Trump moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv, and with it the storied residence of the US ambassador.

Under various presidents, the envoy had previously been housed in a sprawling, five-bedroom seaside compound built on an acre (nearly one-half hectare) of land, which Israel gave the United States soon after its independence in 1948.

The previous residence was a social hub for relations between the two close allies. It was known for its July 4th blowouts, when thousands of guests would watch the sunset and fireworks over the Mediterranean Sea.

The US ambassador’s residence ahead of a Fourth of July party in 2013. (US Embassy)

Trump’s move put an end to all that. The United States sold the property for more than $67 million, according to official Israeli records. The State Department refused to release key details of the sale, but the Israeli business newspaper Globes identified the buyer as one of Trump’s biggest contributors: US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who died in 2021.

The cliffside compound appeared little changed from outside the walls on a recent day. Two Israeli flags waved from the flagpoles in the sea breeze. A spokesman for the Adelson family declined to comment.

A US flag flies at the official residence of the US Ambassador to Israel in the central Israeli city of Herzliya, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

The decision to sell the residence appears to have been aimed at preventing any future president from reversing the embassy move, something Biden has long ruled out. But it also forced US diplomats stationed in the region — most of whom continued working in Tel Aviv — to embark on a difficult search for new digs.

When Nides arrived last December, the plight of the “homeless ambassador” was the talk of diplomatic circles. There simply weren’t many options in crowded Jerusalem for a compound large and secure enough to serve as a US ambassador’s official residence.

In most countries, the official residence is not only the ambassador’s home, but a place for official ceremonies and social gatherings. A cramped apartment simply won’t do.

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Richard Nides speaks during his swearing-in ceremony as new ambassador to Israel, at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Nides initially moved into the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem, a tony enough address but not living quarters suited for entertaining. Sometime in the past couple of months, he moved to the property in the German Colony, one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

The US is leasing it and has notified Israel that the property will be the official residence for the American envoy, according to the embassy.

Other terms of the arrangement have not been made public, but there are no plans to move the ambassador to another site. Officials from both countries, as well as the owner, declined to comment on the property’s value or its monthly rent.

If the intent was to keep the residence low profile, that’s over too. On June 8, Nides tweeted a photo from his “new neighborhood coffee shop in the German colony.”

His residence is surrounded by a tall white fence and dotted with security cameras. Guards can often be seen, according to local shop owners. When a gate opens, looky-loos can catch glimpses of a parking area and courtyard.

Arielle Cohen, legal counsel for the owner, Blue Marble Ltd., doesn’t dispute local reports that the company spent NIS 50 million (about $14.5 million) on the historic restoration. Her father, Avi Ruimi, grew up in the German Colony and founded the company, which specializes in historic restorations and owns several other addresses on the street.

Blue Marble bought the property in 2004. Construction lasted six years and finished in 2020, as it became clear that the US ambassador would need a new home.

Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem, on September 1, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“We knew it was a possibility,” Cohen said in an interview. She declined to comment on the signing process but called the contract a “wonderful milestone.” She said the residence itself is about 570 square meters (about 6,000 square feet) with a second building that roughly doubles the size.

A gallery on the company’s website says one building includes two apartments and commercial space. The second is “a beautiful private villa.” A portfolio on Blue Marble’s website shows a sleekly renovated interior, with a modern kitchen, fixtures and high ceilings.

Local media have reported that the property dates to 1930 and was built by a wealthy Palestinian family. The residence housed unmarried British police officers during the British mandate prior to 1948, and has also been used as a fire station, school and flower shop over the years.

A photo from 1882, from architect David Kroyanker’s book, ‘The German Colony and Emek Refaim Street’ (Courtesy Keter and the Jerusalem Institute)

It’s unclear whether Biden will visit the residence during his brief stopover in Israel next month.

The president’s discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders are likely to focus on another consequence of Trump’s embassy move — the shuttering of a US Consulate in Jerusalem that served Palestinians.

The Palestinians have called on the Biden administration to deliver on its pledge to reopen the consulate, which would reinforce their claim to part of the city and help mend US-Palestinian ties ruptured during the Trump years.

Israel is staunchly opposed to any reopening of the consulate for the same reason — another real-estate dispute in a region where they seem to multiply with every passing year.

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