WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump will deliver a video address for the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem next week, senior administration officials told reporters Friday morning.
Over the last several weeks, Trump had been toying with flying to Israel for the second time in his presidency to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony, much to the surprise of Israeli officials who were unprepared for a potential presidential visit.
But last week, the White House released its official delegation list, which did not include the president. Among the administration members attending are Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, US Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump.
US Vice President Mike Pence will also address an event hosted at the Embassy of Israel to the United States in Washington DC on the same day to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
Friedman asserted Friday morning that relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem advances America’s interests and was not part of any “give and take” with Israel.
“It was an American interest to open the embassy,” he said. “The Israelis were obviously desirous of this and they requested this — they’re very happy by it — but the decision was made because it seemed to be in the best interests of the United States [and] it was something the president promised during the campaign. There was no give and take with Israel in regards to this decision.”
When asked by the The Times of Israel how the embassy relocation served US interests, Friedman argued the move would rebalance leverage in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, making the conditions more conducive to progress.
“One of the things that we thought was important in terms of the conflict was to look at the various leverage points and see how we thought we could adjust those to create a better dynamic for peace,” he said. “What the president saw was that the Palestinians essentially had a veto over the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — meaning that if you say, ‘We’re only going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital if the Palestinians say it’s okay,’ you’re empowering the leverage in a way that’s not helpful. And frankly, that card has been misplayed over many years. ”
“We’ve recognized the obvious, which is that despite the best of intentions, after 51 years since the Six Day War, 70 since the State of Israel was created, and something like 23 since – 24 since [the Oslo peace process], the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no closer to a solution than it’s ever been,” he added.
At the time of Trump’s announcement last December that he was officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy there, one of the main criticisms was that the US was giving Israel a major diplomatic prize, without asking for anything in return.
Friedman dismissed that criticism on Friday. “People can be unhappy about losing that leverage point in the short run, but in the longer run, there’s also a recognition that circumstances are changing, that the world is moving ahead and people have to get onboard before events overtake them,” he said.
“This is a 50-plus-year conflict, maybe it’s a 500-year conflict depending upon how you gauge it. You can’t measure it in terms of weeks or months, any more than you can measure climate change in terms of weeks or months. You have to look at a broader perspective. And so from the broader perspective, we think this is going to help stability.”
The United States is also closely monitoring the situation on the ground vis-à-vis expected Palestinian protests over the new embassy move.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas fiercely criticized Trump’s decision last December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Since then, PA officials have refused to meet with members of the Trump administration, including Vice President Pence when he visited the region earlier this year. An official told reporters Friday that he was “not aware” of any meetings with Palestinian representatives scheduled in the coming week.
In the last five weeks, tens of thousands of Gazans, with the encouragement of the Hamas terror group that rules Gaza, have been undertaking weekly protests at the Gaza border, which they say will continue until May 15, to coincide with the opening of the new embassy.
Some rioters have tried to damage and break the security fence and infiltrate Israel, while others have thrown petrol bombs and rocks, and burned tires. At least 40 Palestinians have been killed in the border clashes, according to the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry. The IDF argues that it uses live fire and crowd dispersal methods in accordance with the army’s open-fire regulations, while much of the international community has criticized Israel for using excessive force.
“We’re Americans, we support the rights for peaceful protest, but the operative word there is peaceful,” Victoria Coates, a National Security Council staffer, told The Times of Israel on Friday.
“As you look at what’s going on down in Gaza, there are a lot of people who are legitimately protesting a very difficult humanitarian situation that they are enduring, but at the same time, you have some people flying kites as symbols of freedom, you have some people flying kites with Swastikas, and gas bombs attached to them, and that’s intolerable,” Coates added. “So I think we need to blame that violence not on anything the United States has done or Israel has done, but firmly on Hamas.”
Initially, the opening of a new Jerusalem embassy was expected to take up to three years. In February, the Trump administration said it would expedite the process by converting an existing US compound in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona.
Trump said at a Thursday night rally he rejected initial plans by staff for an entirely new embassy in Jerusalem that would have cost $1 billion and taken up to 10 years to build.
Trump spoke in Indiana for Republican Senate candidate Mike Braun. He said the price tag and the projected length of time to build was “crazy” and he called Friedman to clarify.
“I put one of my friends as ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, good choice, one of the great lawyers of our country, made a lot of money as a lawyer,” he said of Friedman, who was Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer before his diplomatic appointment.
Friedman told him that there was an existing building in Jerusalem he could renovate for as little as $150,000: “I said, ‘David, you’re going to renovate a corner of a building and it will be beautiful. The site is the best site. The building is already built. We can fix it.’” He said he told Friedman to spend up to $300,000.
According to proposals Trump administration officials provided to Congress members in February, Friedman and some staff will begin working next week out of the new embassy, currently a US consular building in Arnona, at a cost of about $300,000 to $500,000 — the sum Trump appeared to be referring to at the rally.
In the second phase by the end of 2019, an annex on site will be constructed for a more permanent working space for the ambassador, staff and a classified processing site. That will cost $10 million to $15 million, and the security arrangement will cost at least $45 million.
The third phase, the site selection and construction of a new embassy, will take up to nine years, and costs have indeed been projected at up to $1 billion. The State Department reportedly has looked into private funding for the new building.
JTA contributed to this report.