Netanyahu ‘confident’ US embassy will move to Jerusalem within a year

In comments to reporters in India, PM also praises Trump for ‘challenging’ UNRWA and taking a tougher stance on Iran

Joshua Davidovich is The Times of Israel's Deputy Editor

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (unseen) at an Israeli-Indian Economic Conference in New Delhi, India on January 15, 2018 (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (unseen) at an Israeli-Indian Economic Conference in New Delhi, India on January 15, 2018 (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

AHMEDABAD, India — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday praised a series of recent moves by US President Donald Trump and expressed confidence that the US would relocate its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem within a year.

“My confident assessment is that it will move much faster than people think, within a year from today,” he told Israeli reporters on a flight from New Delhi to Gujarat during a state visit to India.

Last month, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that relocating the embassy to Jerusalem would likely take at least three years, and quite possibly longer. “It’s not going to be anything that happens right away,” he said in a speech at the State Department reported by The New York Times. “Probably no earlier than three years out, and that’s pretty ambitious.”

Trump promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a December 6 speech at the White House in which he also formally recognized the city as Israel’s capital.

Trump’s controversial decision sparked protests in some countries and was rejected in a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution. The recognition was welcomed in Israel, and Guatemala has since announced it will follow the US in moving its embassy to the city. Arab foreign ministers are set to meet on February 1 in Cairo to discuss steps against Trump’s recognition, the Arab League said earlier this month.

Netanyahu also lauded the Trump administration as the first to “challenge” the UN aid agency to the Palestinians. A day earlier, the US had announced it would withhold $65 million of a $120 million contribution to UNRWA this month.

The US decision “is the first time that there is a challenge to UNRWA, after 70 years. The agency that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and narrative of erasing Zionism – and this is the first time this thing is challenged. It’s a good thing that they’re moving forward and challenging this body.”

Netanyahu reiterated his view that aid to the Palestinians should pass through the UN’s main refugee body, UNHCR, rather than UNRWA, and said he had suggested to the administration that it divert its contributions.

Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, conditions that do not apply to the refugees cared for by UNHCR. The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year, even as other refugee populations in the world shrink with each passing generation.

UNRWA counters that it is caring for a population that is scattered in several countries in the region, but is not served either by Israel or those countries, which refuse to grant them or their descendants citizenship, and that its definition of refugees reflects that reality.

The US notified UNRWA of the cut in a letter Tuesday from the State Department that also made clear that future US donations will be contingent on major changes by UNRWA.

“We would like to see some reforms be made,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, adding that changes were needed in the way the agency operates and is funded. “This is not aimed at punishing anyone.”

A Palestinian refugee living in Syria receives medication at an UNRWA clinic (courtesy: UNRWA/Taghrid Mohammad)

The US donated $355 million to UNWRA in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution in this year, with the first installment to have been sent this month. But after a highly critical January 2 tweet from Trump on aid to the Palestinians, the State Department opted to wait for a formal policy decision before sending its first installment.

Trump’s tweet expressed frustration over the lack of progress in his attempts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and he pointed the finger at the Palestinians. “We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” he said. “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

Nauert said the United States believes there needs to be more “burden-sharing,” a regular Trump complaint about multilateral organizations dependent on significant contributions of US cash.

“We don’t believe that taking care of other nations and other people have to be solely the United States’ responsibility,” she said.

In his comments to reporters, Netanyahu also praised the Trump administration’s position on the Iranian nuclear deal. The US president said last week that he would not recertify the pact again unless its terms were changed. Israel has been the most vociferous critic of the agreement since before its signing, and has welcomed the administration’s skepticism.

“Three things are happening in the United States that never happened before,” Netanyahu said. Besides the cut to UNRWA and the Jerusalem embassy shifts, “there is a dramatic change toward Iran. The president gave a time limit for the necessary change in attitude to the nuclear program. Be assured this is going to happen. He’s the one talking about canceling the deal.”

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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