Why is the U.S. speeding up its Jerusalem embassy move?

Netanyahu, the Palestinians or just plain old logistics?

February 25, 2018 00:51
4 minute read.
US Embassy in Tel Aviv

US Embassy in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The State Department’s announcement Friday that it will essentially move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in phases, with the first stage to begin as early as May to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day, is a significant shortening of the timeline.

Two days after US President Donald Trump made his historic announcement in the White House on December 6 to recognize Jerusalem and move the embassy, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, seemed to be trying to calm down Palestinian fury and the anger in much of the Muslim world by saying that the embassy move would take years.

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“It’s not going to be anything that happens right away,” Tillerson said in a speech at the State Department. “Probably no earlier than three years out, and that’s pretty ambitious.”

The next high ranking US official to put a date on the move was Vice President Mike Pence, who told the Knesset when he addressed it last month that “in the weeks ahead, our administration will advance its plan to open the United States Embassy in Jerusalem, and that United States Embassy will open before the end of next year.”

Just days after that speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters accompanying him on his trip to India that the embassy move would happen “sooner than you think,” and likely “within the year.”

That comment triggered some pushback from Trump himself, who was asked about Netanyahu’s comments in a Reuters interview. ”By the end of the year? 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.”

So what happened? Why now has the US decided to at least call the current consulate in Jerusalem an embassy and move Ambassador David Friedman and some of his staff to the location by mid May?
US President Donald Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital and announces embassy to relocate

In the spirit of the numerous investigations being conducted against Netanyahu, and in an effort to read anything that happens through the prism of the various cases against the prime minister, some are arguing that the move is timed to give Netanyahu a political boost.

Trump, this logic goes, likes Netanyahu, wants to see him remain in office, and will do what he can to help him politically. The embassy move might do just that.

Others see the move as linked to the Palestinian scorched-earth reaction to the initial announcement, and their fury toward the US that has translated into angry denouncements of Trump and his administration coming from PA President Mahmoud Abbas on down.

For instance, at Wednesday’s debate in the UN Security Council, Ambassador Nikki Haley said that she will “decline the advice I was recently given by your [the PLO’s] top negotiator, Saeb Erekat. I will not shut up. Rather, I will respectfully speak some hard truths.”

The US, she said, “knows the Palestinian leadership was very unhappy with the decision to move our embassy to Jerusalem. You don’t have to like that decision. You don’t have to praise it. You don’t even have to accept it. But know this: That decision will not change.”

Her comments were an indication that the statements coming from Ramallah are being heard in Washington, and do have consequences. The decision to move the embassy sooner than expected, according to this school of thought, is one of those consequences.

But there is a third explanation for speeding up the timeline that should be considered, though it is far less dramatic, and far more banal.

And this explanation is simply one of logistics.

When Tillerson made his comments about 2020 and beyond, he was thinking of what it would mean to relocate an entire, permanent embassy, which is a huge production that entails having to find a site, negotiate terms, provide security, and build the building.

When it indeed appeared that this would take years, other eyes started to look into the matter, including those of Friedman, and other scenarios were evaluated, one of which was to do the move in stages.

The logic behind this was that if the decision was already made, then it should be implemented as quickly as possible. The idea was also that Trump, having made the decision against the advice of most of the world, should reap the political benefits and see it happen by at least the end of his first term.

But why wait that long? What is gained by waiting that long? If security is a concern, then the existing complex in Arnona – one of the most secure sites in Jerusalem – provides a solution. And what better time to do it then to have it coincide with the 70th Independence Day.

According to this explanation that the decision was based primarily on logistical considerations, the decision to make the move now is just the result of looking at the options and realize that it is possible to make the move much earlier – if done in stages – than originally anticipated.

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