Israeli officials professed themselves “completely surprised” Saturday by US President Donald Trump’s remark Friday that he might travel to Israel next month for the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem.
Standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a White House press conference, Trump responded to a question from the Christian Broadcasting Network over who would attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “I may go,” the president said. “Very proud of it.”
It was previously reported that Trump had mulled attending the inauguration but decided against it.
Hadashot TV news quoted Israeli sources saying the president’s comment was entirely unexpected, and that his name was not on the documents that the Americans have shared with their Israeli counterparts regarding the US delegation that will be coming to the ceremony. They said they would now wait and see whether Trump was indeed intending to come.
The same TV report also quoted an unnamed American official saying that the Trump Administration may finally unveil its much anticipated Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal at around the time of the embassy opening, or shortly thereafter, and that it could contain an element of “compensation” for the Palestinians — presumably to offset the significant step toward Israel represented by Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there.
There was no confirmation of the report, which followed a report in the Arab daily Al-Hayat that claimed the Administration recently conveyed new ideas to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, via two unnamed Arab states, but that Abbas rejected the overture.
The US message was said to have provided for pushing off discussions on the fate of Jerusalem to a later date, and to have stressed that the US has not taken a position on the final status of the city.
The paper quoted Palestinian sources saying Abbas, who has been boycotting the US Administration since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, believes the US is seeking to use the Palestinian issue as a bridge to other Arab states, and that it has not presented a serious framework for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump’s new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, kicking off the Middle East leg of his first trip abroad as America’s top diplomat. Pompeo will be continuing to Israel and Jordan. He heads home later this week, but it has been reported he may return for the embassy opening two weeks later.
The president also said on Friday that he had been prepared to sign his approval for a $1 billion embassy construction project in Jerusalem. But he added that he stopped short mid-signature — after jotting “Donald” but before “Trump” — when he realized the cost was too high. He said he instinctively knew the embassy could be opened instead for a mere $300,000-$400,000, through a makeover of part of an existing US installation.
He said he called David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel to discuss the cost. Friedman, Trump recalled, said “I can build it for $150,000,” by converting an existing consular facility, and “instead of 10 years from now, we can open it up in three months.”
Trump approved a $300,000 to $400,000 budget. “That’s the way government works,” he said. “They were going to spend a billion dollars and we’re going to spend much less than half a million dollars,” he added.
“It is going to be beautiful. And it will be somewhat temporary, but it could be for many years,” he said.
“The embassy in Jerusalem has been promised for many, many years by presidents,” Trump said.
“They all made campaign promises and they never had the courage to carry it out. I carried it out.”
Trump vowed to move the US embassy to the holy city last December, when he also formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Washington ultimately decided to expedite the process of relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv by repurposing a facility that currently houses the consular operations of the Consulate General in Jerusalem. The building, which is in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona, will initially consist of the US ambassador and a small team, the White House said in January.
In January, Trump announced that the process would be expedited and a new facility would open in May, to coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary.
Welcomed by Israel, the Palestinians have seen the move as a provocation, and have said it effectively negates the possibility of the Trump administration serving as an honest broker in peace talks. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other PA officials have since refused to meet with anyone on Trump’s team.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is set to lead the 250-member delegation for the event, which will include 40 members of Congress and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump. An unconfirmed Hadashot TV news report on Wednesday stated that Pompeo may eventually lead the delegation.
Republican senators Ted Cruz and Lindsay Graham are also reportedly planning to attend, as is Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt. The group is also expected to include Jewish leaders and heads of pro-Israel Christian organizations.