US starts scouting site for permanent Jerusalem embassy
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US starts scouting site for permanent Jerusalem embassy

Despite Trump boasting of cost-saving move to former consulate, diplomats said to eye forsaken plot in city’s Arnona neighborhood, which Palestinians consider ‘stolen property’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The Jerusalem site formerly known as the Allenby Barracks in late 2016 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
The Jerusalem site formerly known as the Allenby Barracks in late 2016 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

The US administration has started to scout sites for a new “permanent” embassy in Jerusalem, a spokesperson for the embassy said Wednesday.

According to a Channel 12 report, American diplomats are looking at an empty plot of land adjacent to two busy thoroughfares in the city’s Arnona neighborhood, which had been designated as the home of the US embassy years before President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.

Due to its storied history, the site is not uncontroversial.

Citing anonymous sources, Channel 12 on Tuesday evening reported that Trump intends to move the US embassy into a new, permanent building during his second term, provided he wins the 2020 presidential race. He may even travel to Jerusalem for the laying of the cornerstone during the election campaign, according to the report.

To that end, the embassy in Jerusalem submitted a request to the relevant Israeli authorities to “begin preparing the site,” and even to append additional plots to enlarge the total area required for an embassy compound.

In addition, embassy staff are exploring the possibility of establishing a “diplomatic neighborhood” in Jerusalem for diplomats from US and possibly other countries, according to the report.

The Foreign Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality did not respond to requests for comment.

“We have started the process of site selection for a permanent US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem,” an embassy spokesperson confirmed to The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “We are looking at all sites we currently lease or own, including the Arnona property.”

The plot in question is less than 20 minutes’ walk away from the site of the current embassy on 14 David Flusser Street.

Presently lying barren on the corner of Hebron Road and Daniel Yanovsky Street, the plot has a rich history. In the British Mandate era, 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.”

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)

On May 14, 2018, the US embassy in Jerusalem was opened on David Flusser Street, in the building that until that point served as the US consulate.

“Since that date… our American presence in Jerusalem has done nothing but grow,” US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said last month in a speech. “If you’ve been recently to the embassy building in the Jerusalem suburb of Arnona, you’ve noticed how it is a very large construction site. By the summer, it will have more than doubled in size.”

On March 4, the US merged its consulate on Jerusalem’s Agron street — which served Palestinians — into the embassy. The US embassy now “includes 10 interconnected diplomatic facilities,” Friedman said.

Trump has often boasted that transforming the Flusser Street consulate into an embassy cost the American taxpayer much less than had been estimated.

“They thought it was going to take a billion-one. I got it built for $490,000,” he told a group of businessmen in Minnesota earlier this week.

“And they said, ‘How do you do that?’ Well, we had a better location… We ended up that we wanted to buy a very expensive piece of land that was in a bad location, and I said, ‘Don’t we have something better than this?’ And our ambassador, David Friedman, did a great job. He said, ‘Sir, we actually have a building that’s in a much better location. Why don’t we renovate it and make that the embassy?'”

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, May 30, 2018, posing ahead of a Times of Israel interview (Matty Stern, US embassy Jerusalem)

Starting in the late 1960s, the US embassy had been located on Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Street.

In the 1980s, American politicians, led by Republican Senator Jesse Helms, urged the administration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy to the city. In 1988, a law was passed calling for two “diplomatic facilities” to be built in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

In the last days of the Reagan presidency, on January 18, 1989, US ambassador to Israel William Brown and Israel Lands Authority deputy director Moshe Gatt signed an agreement according to which a plot of land in Jerusalem would be leased from Israel to the US for 99 years, for $1 per year.

“The fifteen-page ‘Land Lease and Purchase Agreement’ referred only to ‘the Jerusalem property,’ but almost immediately reports surfaced — later confirmed — that the land in question was located in what was known as the Allenby Barracks, the site of the British army’s Jerusalem garrison during the Mandate,” Palestinian scholar Walid Khalidi wrote in a 2000 article for the Journal of Palestine Studies.

According to Khalidi, the plot is 31,250 square meters (7.7 acres) in size.

“Ever since the signature of the 1989 lease agreement and the insistent reports linking the site to the Allenby Barracks, Palestinian circles have questioned the lease’s legality on the grounds that the site of the envisaged embassy was Palestinian refugee property confiscated by the Israeli authorities, along with other refugee properties, since 1948,” Khalidi wrote.

“More particularly, it was alleged that the site was part of an Islamic Waqf,” the Muslim trust active in Jerusalem.

A few years later, in 1995, the Jerusalem Embassy Act was passed, calling on the administration to recognize the city as Israel’s capital and relocate the embassy there.

However, the law allowed for the president to waive the move if he or she deemed it detrimental to American national security interests. Since its passing, every US president — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — has signed the waiver every six months, despite Bush and Clinton having promised to move the embassy during their respective campaigns.

On December 6, 2017, Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to move the embassy there. He fulfilled that promise half a year later, though until recently continued signing the waiver because the ambassador’s official residence had not yet been relocated to the capital, as stipulated by the 1995 law.

But since Friedman recently took up official residence in the Agron Street facility,  Trump’s December 7, 2018, waiver may have been the last one.

This photo from March 4, 2019, shows United States consulate building in Jerusalem. The United States has officially shuttered its consulate in Jerusalem, downgrading the status of its main diplomatic mission to the Palestinians by folding it into the US Embassy to Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The US sent its first consul to Jerusalem in 1844, more than a century before the State of Israel was founded. Some 13 years later, the administration established a permanent consular presence in the Old City.

The mission on Agron Street was declared a Consulate General in 1928, representing the US in Jerusalem (East and West), the West Bank and Gaza “as an independent mission,” since until last year the US did not recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem.

The former Allenby Barracks, situated in pre-1967 Israel but very close to the pre-1967 Green Line, may be most controversial due to its disputed ownership.

According to an article in a 2000 publication from the Badil Resource Center for Palestine Residency and Refugee Rights, 19 Palestinian families from Jerusalem “have been traced as owners of the property.”

A small part of the property was requisitioned by Britain during the Mandate period, the article stated. The rest is composed of five parcels: One belonged to the Waqf and four were rented from private owners until May 1948, when the State of Israel was founded.

Khalidi, the Palestinian scholar, wrote that activists — himself included — challenged the Land Lease and Purchase Agreement mere months after it was signed in 1989.

Critics argued that the lease not only constituted a dramatic change in US policy — which did not recognize anyone’s sovereignty over Jerusalem before a final-status peace agreement is concluded — but also implied an American admission that Israel owned that piece of land.

The Jerusalem site formerly known as the Allenby Barracks, a possible location of the US Embassy (Raphael Ahren/TOI)
The Jerusalem site formerly known as the Allenby Barracks in late 2016 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

In June 1989, the State Department replied to the complaints by stating that it was “aware of claims that Islamic Trust (Waqf) holds an interest in a portion of the agreed site in Jerusalem” but had not been able “to locate any record of or support for this claim during a thorough title search completed by us.”

A possible relocation of the embassy would be addressed “only in the context of a negotiated settlement of the West Bank and Gaza,” it said.

Ten years later, in 1999, a senior State Department official acknowledged that the Land Lease and Purchase Agreement “identified particular property” for the purpose of an embassy that “might be leased to the US by the government of Israel under certain conditions,” according to the article in the Badil journal.

“As of today, however, the US has not entered into a lease for this or any other property under the Agreement.” According to paragraph 2.1 entitled “Principle Terms of the Lease and Purchase … the Government of Israel will immediately initiate all measures required for obtaining the sole and lawful ownership of the properties, free from any encumbrances or third party claims.”

But Khalidi argued that the position that the 1989 lease had not gone into effect “flies in the face of the wording of the lease itself.”

Khalidi, who has taught at Oxford, Harvard and the American University of Beirut and founded the Institute for Palestine Studies, did extensive research into the most minute details of the question over the ownership. Concluding his 8,000-word article on the matter, he argued that the plot of the Allenby Barracks is “confiscated refugee land” that the UK had no claims to, and that Israel had thus no right to lease it to the US.

“With all that Jerusalem connotes, it is, to say the least, unbecoming for the United States’s future embassy in that city to be built on land that is stolen property,” Khalidi wrote.

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