WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is accelerating its transfer of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, US media reported on Thursday, with a plan to have the facility ready by the end of 2019.
To expedite the move, the US will not build a new structure, but will instead convert an existing consular building in the Arnona neighborhood of West Jerusalem into the new US mission, officials were cited as saying by both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
The Arnona building lies near the Green Line, which marked Israel’s borders from 1949 until the Six Day War of 1967. It has been used over the years to issue visas and provide various consular services, but would need to be renovated to accommodate the ambassador and classified operations that would be based there.
Moving into this relatively new building is designed, the reports said, to save money and allow US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to begin working out of it by next year.
The announcement contradicts State Department estimations that the move would not occur for at least another three years.
Trump promised to move the embassy in a December 6 speech at the White House in which he also formally recognized the city as Israel’s capital.
The move was hailed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. But the decision also sparked protests in some countries and was rejected in a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution.
Rebuffing initial optimism from Israel, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said shortly after the December announcement 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, as reported by The New York Times. “Probably no earlier than three years out, and that’s pretty ambitious.”
Potentially highlighting ongoing disagreement with the White House, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert denied Thursday to The Times of Israel than an expedited moving process was now underway.
“The US government is currently assessing the suitability of various Jerusalem sites for a future embassy,” she said. “For now, we have no updates.”
Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for diplomacy and public affairs was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying that “Tillerson’s primary focus is on security,” and that the US “will not be moving to a new facility.”
On Wednesday, Netanyahu made comments during a visit to India expressing confidence that Trump would quickly fulfill his pledge to relocate the embassy, telling reporters it would happen “much faster than people think, within a year from today.”
But hours later, Trump rebuffed Netanyahu’s contention in an interview with the Reuters news agency.
“By the end of the year?” he asked when told of Netanyahu’s comments. “We’re talking about different scenarios — I mean obviously that would be on a temporary basis. We’re not really looking at that. That’s no.”
Trump was nonetheless adamant that the move would eventually go ahead. He said it would be “a beautiful embassy but not one that costs $1.2 billion,” referring to the new US embassy in the UK, which he has previously criticized for being too expensive.