US Senate okays keeping embassy in Jerusalem permanently, in vote of 97 to 3

Only Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Tom Carper oppose motion; Jerusalem council recently approved plans for additional embassy compound

View of the site of the US Embassy in Jerusalem ahead of its inauguration, May 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of the site of the US Embassy in Jerusalem ahead of its inauguration, May 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The US Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to keep the United States Embassy in Jerusalem, with only three senators voting against establishing funding to maintain the diplomatic mission.

In a move welcomed by Israel and bitterly opposed by the Palestinians, the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017 and moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city in 2018. It was one of a string of diplomatic gifts delivered by former US president Donald Trump to Israel.

President 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.

The amendment approved by 97 senators effectively makes the embassy relocation permanent.

Only Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Tom Carper voted against the move.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, talk during a Democratic presidential primary debate, February 19, 2020, in Las Vegas, hosted by NBC News and MSNBC. (AP/John Locher)

Currently, the US embassy is hosted in the former consulate building in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona until a permanent complex is built.

The plan to build a permanent embassy structure in Jerusalem was approved in 2019; in January, Jerusalem municipal authorities said they had given preliminary approval to a location for the permanent US embassy in the city, on the so-called Allenby compound bordered by Hebron Road in southern Jerusalem. The city also approved 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.

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a Jerusalem deputy mayor 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.

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and US President Donald Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump unveil the inauguration plaque during the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

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.

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.

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.

The US Consulate in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, Israel, shortly before it became the American embassy in Israel, February 24, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

Plans for a new US Embassy campus on the Hebron Road in Jerusalem. (Jerusalem Municipality)

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.

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.

The site is near an invisible line that divides West and East Jerusalem, the part of the city captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and claimed by the Palestinians for a future capital. It was not immediately clear if it crosses the boundary.

The Jerusalem site formerly known as the Allenby Barracks, a planned location for a second campus of the US Embassy (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Most European countries condemned Trump’s 2018 move as not in line with international consensus, preferring to wait on recognizing the city until the status of Jerusalem is finalized in talks with the Palestinians.

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