'Extraordinary success' or diplomatic defeat?

Year after US embassy move, Jerusalem diplomatic influx fails to materialize

Since DC’s mission opened with great fanfare on May 14, 2018, only one other embassy has opened and stayed in the city — and it may close soon, while the EU is a major obstacle

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the official opening ceremony of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, on May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the official opening ceremony of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, on May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During last year’s Independence Day festivities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised “preferential treatment” for the first 10 countries to move their embassies to Jerusalem.

“There’s a simple principle, you’re familiar with it: first come, first served,” he told foreign ambassadors at an April 19, 2018, reception in the capital.

At the time, the US and Guatemala were scheduled to open embassies in Jerusalem within weeks, in what Israeli officials hoped would create momentum to overturn a decades-old taboo against establishing diplomatic missions in the holy city.

“I’m delighted to say that there are at least half a dozen countries that are now seriously discussing with us moving the embassy to Jerusalem,” Netanyahu announced that day.

In that optimistic spirit, Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Gallant urged the Jerusalem Municipality to prepare an area of the city for the influx of foreign missions, similar to Washington, DC’s Embassy Row.

A handful of countries did toy with the idea, and some even opened lower-level “missions” or “offices” in Jerusalem. But the hoped-for mass relocation of embassies did not materialize. (An embassy is considered the headquarters of a government’s representation in a foreign country, and has a special status that consulates and other lower-level “missions” and “offices” do not.)

As Israel and the US on Tuesday celebrate the one-year anniversary of the opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem, the US and Guatemala remain the only two countries that have their embassies here. And the Central American country’s next government may yet move its embassy back to Tel Aviv, as some of the leading candidates in its upcoming elections have pledged to do.

Meanwhile the European Union, in an internal memo obtained by The Times of Israel, has downplayed the trend among some member states to open trade offices in Jerusalem (some of which have diplomatic status since they are seen as “extensions” of a country’s Tel Aviv embassy, but are not considered embassies themselves), insisting that it remains firmly opposed to any recognition of the city as Israel’s capital and to establishing embassies there.

Contrary to all the negative predictions, the Jerusalem embassy has been an extraordinary success

Washington and Jerusalem are nevertheless celebrating US President Donald Trump’s historic decision as a milestone of dramatic proportions.

“Contrary to all the negative predictions, the Jerusalem embassy has been an extraordinary success, advancing peaceful coexistence, bilateral cooperation and cultural exchange between and among Israelis, Palestinians and Americans,” US Ambassador David Friedman wrote in an anniversary op-ed for the Israel Hayom daily.

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

“Most of all, the United States Embassy in Jerusalem stands for the truth — the bedrock of all successful policies. Moving our embassy places the United States firmly on the right side of history.”

Many Palestinians would likely disagree with Friedman’s assertion that the embassy’s relocation has promoted “peaceful coexistence.” But it is undeniable that doomsday predictions claiming the move would inflame the entire Middle East did not come true.

Hamas press release on May 15, 2018, announcing the deaths of 10 of its Interior Ministry members in clashes with the IDF the day prior. (Courtesy)

The May 14, 2018, opening ceremony fell on the deadliest day of the so-called Great March of Return, with Palestinians rioting, and in at least one incident opening fire, at the Gaza border at the behest of the Hamas terrorist organization. The Israeli army responded with live fire, killing 62 Palestinians that day and the next. According to a UN Human Rights Council probe published earlier this year, seven of the dead were children; Israel rejected the report as a “pro Hamas, pro terror” document. According to a Hamas official, 50 of the 62 were its members, and three others were from the Islamic Jihad terror group. Among the dead, the IDF said, were all eight members of a cell of armed Hamas operatives who were killed in a gun battle as they sought to breach the fence in the northern Gaza Strip.

Palestinians take part in clashes with Israeli forces near the border between the Gaza strip and Israel, east of Gaza City, on May 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

According to Friedman, whose name is etched on the plaque at the embassy’s building in the city’s Arnona neighborhood, “well more than 100 American diplomats come to work every day” in Jerusalem, “working hand in hand with Israelis and Palestinians, and American and foreign tourists visit every day just to take a picture or say a prayer.”

Ten months after the Trump administration converted its consulate on 14 David Flusser Street into an embassy, it merged its consulate on Agron Street — which historically served Palestinians — into the embassy, calling it the “Palestinian Affairs Unit.”

This photo from March 4, 2019, shows the US consulate in Jerusalem. The US 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)

It is in this historic facility, which had served as US consulate general since 1928, that Friedman formally took residence earlier this year, ending the need for the administration to waive the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act. (Besides calling for the embassy to move to the city, this law also stipulated that the head of mission’s residence be there as well.)

The US embassy now “includes 10 interconnected diplomatic facilities,” Friedman said in a speech in March, noting that since the festive opening, the “American presence in Jerusalem has done nothing but grow.”

The US has also started the “process of site selection for a permanent US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem,” an embassy spokesperson told the The Times of Israel at the time.

Will the pendulum swing in Guatemala?

The Embassy of Guatemala is currently located in an office building in Jerusalem’s Malha Technology Park. But if it is up to some of the leading candidates in next month’s presidential elections, it may soon be relocated to Tel Aviv.

Due to term limits, President Jimmy Morales — a staunch ally of Israel and close personal friend of the Netanyahu family — cannot run for reelection, and many of his would-be successors have vowed to undo his Jerusalem decision.

‘There is no guarantee that the next president will keep the Guatemalan embassy in Jerusalem’

In the weeks leading up to the June 16 vote, the embassy issue has become “more and more prevalent,” according to Leah Soibel, founder and CEO of Fuenta Latina, a nonprofit fostering Israel’s ties with the Spanish-speaking world.

“There is no guarantee that the next president will keep the Guatemalan embassy in Jerusalem,” she told The Times of Israel.

Guatemala President Jimmy Morales speaks during the official opening ceremony of the Guatemala embassy in Jerusalem on May 16, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

“We have to remember that initially Jimmy Morales’ decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem was not widely supported in Guatemala. Arab countries threatened to boycott Guatemala’s cardamom exports worth millions of dollars,” she said.

“However, they were empty threats and exports continue. As a result, the embassy move became a subject of political debate, which is why a number of the candidates have incorporated it as a part of their policy platform in the upcoming presidential election.”

So far, the only candidate with a realistic chance of winning to proudly declare her support for the Jerusalem embassy is Zury Ríos, the daughter of the country’s former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who had close defense ties with Israel.

Following her late father’s footsteps, Ríos, who polls currently see in second place, promises abiding friendship with the Jewish state.

“I recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will maintain the embassy in this capital,” she told The Times of Israel in a recent telephone interview.

Guatemalan president hopeful Zury Rios (courtesy)

“We have always been there for Israel and Israel has always been there for us. Both countries have a profound mutual admiration and respect,” she added, vowing to side with Jerusalem in its disputes with the Palestinians or Iran.

The ties between Israel and Guatemala have always been strong and remain so today. Earlier this week, a street called Jerusalem the Capital of Israel Street was officially inaugurated in Guatemala City. On the same day, hundreds of Guatemalans — Jews and Evangelicals — marched through the capital in support of the Jewish state.

The outgoing president’s wife, Patricia Marroquín de Morales — who in December hosted the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, for a “historic visit” — is visiting Israel this week to participate in the festivities marking the anniversary of the US embassy move.

Israel Ambassador to Guatemala Matty Cohen, center, with white shirt, attends the inauguration of the Jerusalem the Capital of Israel Street in Guatemala City, May 2019 (Facebook).

Also in Jerusalem this week is former Paraguayan president Horacio Manuel Cartes, who last year moved his country’s embassy to Jerusalem as well. But in what could be seen as a cautionary tale for Guatemala’s Israel backers, his successor, Mario Abdo Benitez, swiftly reversed that decision, closed the hastily opened mission, also in Malha Technology Park, and moved it back to Tel Aviv.

Honduras, too, has talked of of transferring its embassy to Jerusalem… if Israel opens a mission in its capital, Tegucigalpa.

On March 24, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez announced that his country would “immediately open an official diplomatic mission in Jerusalem and this will extend our embassy through the capital of Israel, Jerusalem.” Moving the embassy would be a “second step,” he said.

In an official statement issued the same day, the country’s Foreign Ministry indicated that a “commercial office” would open in Jerusalem as soon as Israel opens a “cooperation office” in Tegucigalpa. So far, Israel has established no official diplomatic presence in the Honduran capital, and it is not currently planning to open one due to financial constraints, Israeli diplomats say.

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)

Missions are possible

One year after the US opened the embassy in Jerusalem and encouraged its allies to follow suit, “offices” or “missions” that deal with trade, defense or cultural issues appear to have become the convenient solution for friends of the US and Israel that want to make a goodwill gesture to the Jewish state but are not ready to go all the way and relocate their embassy to Jerusalem.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in October 2018 said he was “open-minded” about moving his country’s embassy to the city. But a few weeks later he disappointed Israeli officials when he formally recognized only West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (Israel considers the entire city its capital) and vowed to move the Australian embassy there only “when practical, in support of, and after final status determination.”

In March 2019, Canberra quietly opened a “Trade and Defence Office” in the Migdal Ha’ir office tower in western Jerusalem, with officials stressing that it does not have any diplomatic status.

An Australian diplomat speaks with an Israeli colleague at Australia’s new Defence and Trade Office in Jerusalem (Twitter)

A similar story happened with Brazil. During last year’s presidential election campaign, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro vowed to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. After his victory, he switched from reiterating that promise to distancing himself from it, eventually declaring, during a March visit to Israel, that his government had “decided to establish an office in Jerusalem for the promotion of trade, investment, technology and innovation.”

“I hope that is a first step toward the opening, in time, of the Brazilian embassy in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said at the time. Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East peace negotiator, tweeted congratulations and urged “all nations” to consider opening embassies in the city.

While some Israeli officials hailed the planned Brazilian office as a mission with diplomatic status, the country’s formal statement on the matter does not indicate that this is the case.

Some of Israel’s friends in Central Europe have similarly announced the wish to transfer their embassies but stopped short of actually doing so, for various reasons.

Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă, for instance, in March 2019 ceremoniously declared that her country would relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But in Romania it is the president, not the prime minister, who has the last word on foreign policy matters, and Klaus Iohannis quickly made plain that no decision had been made regarding the matter, and noted that his own personal views on it were known. (Spoiler: He’s opposed.)

If pushed by journalists, EU officials were instructed to reply that the EU and its member states “will continue to respect the international consensus on Jerusalem”

In the Czech Republic, it was the president, Milos Zeman, who in April 2018 announced the beginning of a three-stage process to move Czech diplomatic missions from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But he’s not the one calling the shots, and the prime minister is no rush to open an embassy in the capital.

The first two steps of Zeman’s plan were implemented. The first was the appointment last April of an honorary consul in Jerusalem. About half a year later, Zeman opened the so-called Czech House in Jerusalem, an office space in the Cinematheque theater that officials in Prague stressed does not have any diplomatic status.

A full-fledged Czech embassy will likely not open in the near future. The country’s Foreign Ministry last year stressed that it “fully respects common policy of the European Union, which considers Jerusalem as the future capital of both the State of Israel and the future State of Palestine.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his wife Sara and President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman attend the opening ceremony of the Czech House in Jerusalem, November 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Indeed, it is Brussels’ desire for consensus on foreign policy matters that appears to be preventing some member states from relocating their embassies.

An internal EU memo from March states that, if pushed by journalists on the Romanian prime minister’s vow to move, officials should reply by saying that the EU and its member states “will continue to respect the international consensus on Jerusalem.”

The memo cited United Nations Security Council Resolution 487 from 1980, which calls on countries “that have established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions from the Holy City.”

At odds with the EU

Still, one EU member state appears to be doing the opposite: Hungary in March opened a trade office in Jerusalem that it considers an “extension” of the country’s Tel Aviv embassy, with officials in Budapest stressing that the office has “diplomatic status.”

“This is a very exciting moment for us because it’s the first European diplomatic mission opened in Jerusalem in many decades,” Netanyahu said at the mission’s opening ceremony.

Hungarian FM Péter Szijjártó (left) and PM Benjamin Netanyahu open the Hungary’s trade mission in central Jerusalem, March 19, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The internal EU memo again seeks to downplay the significance of Budapest’s move, instructing officials to tell inquiring journalists that the union and its members continue to “respect the international consensus on Jerusalem” as enshrined in Resolution 487.

“Hungary is not opening an embassy but a trade office,” the memo stresses.

Trump’s decision to open the American embassy in Jerusalem has shaken up what for decades was an immovable article of faith for the international community. But one year on, the diplomatic floodgates have yet to open, and the Europeans, in particular, are doing their best to keep them closed.

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