The great embassy race: US and Russia elbowing each other, eyeing Jerusalem

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April 9, 2017 08:57

Russia already owns a substantial amount of property in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound that could house an embassy.

Jerusalem

A panorama of early 20th-century Jerusalem, showing the city walls, the Dome of the Rock and the Aksa Mosque. (photo credit:Wikimedia Commons)

Last week witnessed two threshold events that signaled a profound change in the Middle East: the Trump administration’s cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for Assad’s latest nerve gas attack on civilians, and Russia’s surprise recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Both dramatic events took the world by surprise, representing nearly simultaneous reversals of the internationally accepted status quo.

Previously, Assad’s use of poison gas was just another facet of the ongoing barbarity afflicting the Middle East, one which former US president Barack Obama naively promised to stem, but did not follow through with military action. Suddenly there is a new sheriff in town who broke through the diplomatic inertia with long-awaited action. While all the consequences are yet to emerge, no one should ignore the nearly universal sighs of long overdue, hope-stirring relief.



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This remarkable feeling was joined almost simultaneously by Russia’s unexpected announcement recognizing Israel’s eternal capital of Jerusalem, a dramatic decision that places Vladimir Putin against Donald Trump in a totally new big-power rivalry – the race to Jerusalem.

Many American and Israeli Jews have waited with mounting impatience for Trump to keep his campaign promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Trump administration assessing whether to move US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, says Mike Pence on Feb. 25, 2017 (credit: REUTERS)

Against an atmosphere of US equivocation, Putin suddenly announced, without preamble or restricting conditions, the recognition of Israel’s capital, to take effect immediately.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement reads: “We reaffirm our commitment to the UN-approved principles for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, which include the status of east Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state. At the same time, we must state that in this context we view west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

As Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon reported, the Russian decision is an immediate change of policy with regard to Israeli sovereignty over its capital, and is independent of wherever the Palestinian Authority may eventually decide to locate the capital of a future Palestinian state. Putin’s declaration was an unexpected breath of fresh air.

It also signaled the unofficial start of a new Jerusalem marathon, or the Great Embassy Race. Will Putin match Trump’s Jerusalem embassy promise with his own and race to see which country will indeed be the first to move its embassy to Israel’s capital? All the conventional wisdom as to the feasibility of such a move – how the Arab world could never accept it, how the Palestinians would launch another intifada in response, and so on – fades in the face of the new reality.

Some of the possibilities are intriguing, from Russia using its Security Council veto to block condemnation of the move and instead to enable it; to the simultaneous move of both the Russian and American embassies initiating the return of the 13 foreign embassies that left Jerusalem in 1980 in response to Israel’s reunification of the city.

Moscow’s decision escalates its involvement in the moribund peace process, reaffirming “its support for the two-state solution as an optimal option that meets the national interests of the Palestinian and Israeli people[s], both of whom have friendly relations with Russia, and the interests of all other countries in the region and the international community as a whole.”

Despite all of this, Putin’s timing of the announcement might have been designed to blunt Israel’s response to the chemical attacks in Syria, especially in light of Trump’s declared goal of forging the peace deal of the millennium. Recognizing Israel’s capital is also a dramatic signal that, despite the ongoing self-destruction of Syria, Russia wants to play a more active role in peacemaking.

In 1989, Israel began leasing to the US a plot of land in Jerusalem for its new embassy. The 99-year lease costs America $1 per year to reserve a choice plot in Israel’s capital that remains an empty field. For that matter, many Israelis have expressed the thought that the US Consulate in Jerusalem’s Arnona section could be converted into an embassy by not much more than changing the sign on the building.

Russia already owns a substantial amount of property in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound that could house an embassy. The race is on to decide which nation will move its embassy to Israel’s capital first.
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