A deputy mayor of Jerusalem revealed Tuesday that she is pushing for the creation of an embassy district in the south of the city, anchored by the US Embassy, whose plans for two campuses were approved by the municipality’s planning and building committee last week.
“I’ve been talking to the mayor for two years about building an embassy district,” Fleur Hassan-Nahoum told a Zoom press conference. “Its anchor would be the US Embassy on Hebron Road. This same area has a lot of space for building behind Hebron Road and for hotels that are already in the planning stages opposite the Jerusalem Promenade. It’s my intention to work toward an embassy district like any other capital city of the world [has].”
Breaking with decades of US policy, the outgoing Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moved its embassy there from Tel Aviv in 2018. It was one of a string of diplomatic gifts delivered by US President Donald Trump to Israel.
US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to take a more balanced approach toward Israel and the Palestinians, but he has said he does not plan on moving the embassy back to Tel Aviv.
Several countries, among them Honduras, Malawi, the Dominican Republic, Serbia and Kosovo, have stated their intention to open embassies in Jerusalem, but so far only two have — the US and Guatemala.
Last week, city planners greenlighted plans for a new, permanent US Embassy on the so-called Allenby compound bordered by Hebron Road in southern Jerusalem, as well as an extension to the existing 12,800 square meter (138,000 foot) temporary embassy on David Flusser Street in the Arnona neighborhood, a 20-minute walk away. Some Arnona residents are opposing the extension.
Hassan-Nahoum, who is in charge of foreign relations, international economic development and tourism for the city, said that she did not know which of the two US complexes would be the principal one, but that she and Mayor Moshe Lion preferred the Allenby compound, because it was more central, had better transportation connections and was further from residential buildings.
One of the campuses will serve as the embassy, with the other one containing housing for staff, recreational facilities, and possibly a new official residence for the US ambassador. Hassan-Nahoum said she understood that the State Department was still looking at other possible arrangements.
At present, the ambassador is living at the former US Consulate in a historic building on Jerusalem’s downtown Agron Street, but this is said to be too small for the purpose. Hassan-Nahoum said this site would likely be retained for embassy events and conferences.
Addressing the residents of the nearby neighborhoods of Talpiot, Arnona, Armon Hanatziv, Abu Tor and Baka, she said, “We greatly believe in the embassy effect. When the most important country in the world opens an embassy in an area of your city, the embassy effect means that everything around it will start to gain momentum. There will be more restaurants, shops, dry cleaners. Property prices will go up as embassy staff look for housing. Maybe there’ll be another private school. A big embassy and a new light rail line will have an incredibly positive effect. [The surrounding neighborhoods] will only see an economic upturn.”
The total cost of construction for both campuses is estimated at $600 million and the architects are the US firm Krueck Sexton and the Israeli company Studio Yigal Levy. The planning process is expected to take at least two years.
Between 400 and 700 construction workers will be needed, Hassan-Nahoum said, and once the complexes are operating, they will need a total of 630 clerical workers and 450 non-office workers, of which 400 and 380 respectively will be locals, she added.
Asked whether Jerusalemites could expect to see high walls and floodlights surrounding the Hebron Road complex, Hassan-Nahoum would only say, “If [the security issues] hadn’t been solved, then the plan would not have been deposited. All security concerns have been dealt with and it will be a beautifully planned building.”
Pushed on the details of discussions about security, in which she participated, she said they had revolved around issues such as the height envisaged for future buildings nearby to ensure that nobody could look down on the new embassy, and the location of the new light rail stop so that it did not cause security concerns at the embassy entrance.
While the Arnona campus is largely underground, the 60,618 square meter (652,000 square foot) Hebron Road plot, with 31,073 meters of built space, will feature a ten-story office building (shown in gray), a four-story residential building (in beige), several floors of parking (pink) and support facilities. The site is bordered on its southern side by David Yanovsky Street, from where access to the campus will be provided.
Hassan-Nahoum said it was doubtful that the incoming US Biden administration would seek to change the plans, predicting that they might be tweaked only in response to local objections.
The plans approved by the local planning committee will now move to the Jerusalem District Planning Committee, where deposition is expected in the coming weeks. Once that is done, fuller plans will be released and the public will have 60 days to object.
According to The Forward, however, the State Department has already ruled out the Allenby location because it does not meet safety rules created after the 1998 bombings by al-Qaeda of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
Hebron Road is the inner city section of Route 60, which connects the northern and southern parts of the West Bank.
The planned site is near the line that divides West and East Jerusalem, the part of the city captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War which the Palestinians claim for a future capital.
Currently in an abandoned state, the plot has a rich history. During the British Mandate period, it housed the so-called Allenby Barracks, named after the UK’s General Edmund Allenby, who operated an army base there.
Later, the State of Israel maintained a border police station there. Since the 1980s, Palestinian activists have claimed that the plot belongs at least partially to them and that it would be “unbecoming” for the US to establish an embassy “on land that is stolen property.”