A diplomatic construction

Israel is the only country whose American embassy is not in its capital.

In 1995, after years of symbolic declarations recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the US Congress passed legislation that appeared to give force to those earlier resolutions. Within 30 days, the new law said, the secretary of state would produce a report outlining the State Department's plans, including deadlines, for the building of an American embassy in Jerusalem, with up to $100 million allocated for the project over the following two years. Ambassadors and other State Department officials were indirectly made responsible for the law's enactment, with the maintenance budget for their own overseas facilities subject to cuts of up to 50% if the new facility didn't open on time.

The embassy, the Act confidently declared, "should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999."

WELL, FOUR years passed, and just weeks short of that deadline, bemused Jerusalem residents watched as a new American embassy indeed opened its doors in a previously divided capital. After decades of waiting, a US ambassador would finally serve in the once bitterly contested city of... Berlin.

Now, however, more than a decade after the Embassy Relocation Act was passed, crews are working on a new facility to hold the Jerusalem offices of American diplomatic staff. While both city officials and representatives of the US consulate in Jerusalem remain vague about details, the project raises anew questions about whether the American government will eventually comply with the legislation passed by overwhelming majorities in the US Senate (93-5) and the House of Representatives (374-37).

IN INTERVIEWS and e-mail exchanges conducted over the past several weeks, both American and Israeli officials stressed that the new structure, to be built in west Jerusalem's Arnona neighborhood, is intended merely as a replacement for the US consular facility located on Nablus Road in east Jerusalem.

The structure, they explain, will serve as a satellite for the US consulate and consular residence in the city, which is located on Agron Street in west Jerusalem, across the road from Independence Park and not far from the Prime Minister's Residence.

The property, which was purchased for an undisclosed sum by the American government, measures just over five acres, and is located near the intersection of Klausner and Dead Sea Streets. The site is roughly 10 minutes by foot from Hebron Road, a busy six-lane thoroughfare serving both the eastern and western sides of the city. Side streets closer to the site are narrow - several are one-way - and the increased traffic that will be generated by the new facility has been a concern to area residents.

Consular officials have predicted that the new offices will attract up to 100 cars hourly - an inflow officials hope to manage with a 200-vehicle underground parking garage at the site.

Construction of the facility will take place in two stages, according to consulate spokesperson Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm. In the first, expected to take about a year, a new "purpose-built" consular section will be built to handle the duties of the current consular office on Nablus Road, including the provision of visas for residents hoping to travel, study or work in the US. American citizens will be able to visit the new consular section to receive passports, federal benefits, birth certificates and other services.

While construction of the facility will begin soon after the consulate receives municipal approval - an application for a construction permit was submitted last summer - it remains unclear when the second stage will begin.

"Eventually," Schweitzer-Bluhm wrote in an e-mail, "we intend to construct an additional office building to accommodate our Public Diplomacy and Management sections."

Schweitzer-Bluhm repeatedly declined to answer questions from In Jerusalem magazine (published by The Jerusalem Post) about whether the consulate's new buildings would house the US embassy. And because neither the consulate nor the city would release details about the design, scale or cost of the structure, it's difficult to determine just what kind of facility could someday represent the American government at the site.

What's known is that the location of the embassy in Israel remains among the questions that could have the greatest impact on the future status of Jerusalem.

THE AMERICAN government opened its first office in Jerusalem in 1844. The first American consulate sat inside the Old City (along with virtually all the city's residents), not far from Jaffa Gate.

Descriptions of early consular activities sound almost impossibly quaint today, with the first consuls forced to charge American visitors tourist fees to supplement their insufficient salaries.

The US moved its consulate to the current location on Agron Street in 1912, taking over a house built by a German Lutheran mission in the 1860s.

The first world war cemented America's status as a rising power, and the country opened a second consular facility not long after on Nablus Road, which, along with the rest of Jerusalem and Palestine, had passed into British colonial control. That consular facility had also previously served as a private residence, and its size and location are cited by current consulate officials as a major reason for the construction of a new facility.

In short, representatives of the American government have performed their work in the same two consular facilities since shortly after WWI, during which time the city's population has grown over 1,400%, from roughly 50,000 to over 750,000.

THE UNITED STATES was the first foreign power to recognize Israel after it declared independence in 1948, but never established its embassy in Jerusalem, even after it became the capital in 1950.

Though congressional resolutions have long called for Jerusalem's official recognition as Israel's capital, American presidents have consistently avoided taking concrete action, citing a desire not to judge the city's status before the completion of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Consequently, initiatives to transfer the embassy have emanated from the US Congress, whose members have long been lobbied by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Congressional resolutions on the issue typically point out that, of the more than 180 countries with which the US maintains relations, Israel is the only one whose American embassy is not located in its capital. Over time the issue has become something of a litmus test for congressional candidates' views regarding Jerusalem as a whole, and how to achieve Arab-Israeli peace.

THE US IS hardly alone in its hesitation. Only two countries - El Salvador and Costa Rica - maintain embassies in the city, with every other ambassador to Israel joining the US ambassador in Tel Aviv. The transfer of any country's embassy to Jerusalem would be seen by the Israeli government and the Palestinians as diplomatic validation of Israel's official position, which is that Jerusalem will remain united under Israeli control. Such a move would set off a wave of protest across the Arab world.

For that reason, the Embassy Relocation Act of 1995 provided a waiver clause. Beginning in October 1998, the president was empowered to postpone implementation of the Act in the event that "such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States."

The law never defined "national security interest," and former president Bill Clinton used the clause to postpone construction. The change of administration in 2000 didn't alter White House policy. President George W. Bush has followed his Democratic predecessor in repeatedly invoking the postponement clause.

SHOULD THE Embassy Relocation Act be implemented, there are many options for where to locate it. While Schweitzer-Bluhm of the American consulate avoided commenting on the suitability of the new consular facility, the property could conceivably be adapted.

An alternative site is located not far away. A January 1989 agreement between Israel and the US provided a roughly eight-acre plot in west Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood for a "diplomatic facility." Under the terms of the deal, the American government would pay $1 annually for up to 99 years to lease the property, once home to the British army's Jerusalem garrison.

Attempts to interview officials connected to the embassy issue highlighted the topic's sensitive nature. Consulate representatives declined to answer questions about the Arnona facility's cost or potential, and were similarly unresponsive to queries about the political climate that would allow for the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

In a statement prepared for In Jerusalem, municipal spokesperson Gideon Schmerling wrote that the city "supports a future move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, and hopes it will be the first of many embassies that will move here." Schmerling and other municipal representatives declined to discuss whether city officials were currently taking or had previously taken steps to promote the embassy's move, or what effects such a move might have on the capital's political status, economy and cultural life. Even AIPAC declined to comment on what current efforts are being made to bring about the move. Since the start of the second intifada, Congress members who have supported the embassy's transfer have been identified by the organization, but statements focusing on the issue have not been released in recent years.

A 1999 statement notes some Congress members' dissatisfaction with the president's use of the waiver clause, but the issue appears to have been displaced recently by lobbying efforts related to the disengagement, Hizbullah and Iran's nuclear ambitions. Those concerns may also help explain the Israeli government's disinclination to press for the relocation.

Perhaps with an eye on those other issues, foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the government's view was simply that "Jerusalem is the capital of Israel ,and we believe that all foreign governments should recognize that fact. All diplomatic embassies should be situated according to correct diplomatic procedure in Jerusalem."

Asked if the construction of the new consular facility might inspire new government efforts to lobby for the move, Regev added only that "our position is [already] well known." What remains unknown is how residents of east Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories will access the consular offices in Arnona. The opening of the facility will signal the end of American government's official presence in east Jerusalem, with the Nablus Road consular office set to be closed after more than 80 years of service.

With West Bank Palestinians' access to Jerusalem severely restricted and Israel's security barrier already built within sections of Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, the location of the new facility is likely to prove a problem for many of those it is intended to serve.

Both consulate and city officials rejected the idea, though Schweitzer-Bluhm, the consulate spokesperson, said in a statement that "we recognize the move of our Consular services office... may be a bit more inconvenient for some residents of East Jerusalem." However, she wrote, "We believe it will not prevent clients from reaching our offices. There is nothing inside Jerusalem to prevent someone from traveling from [east Jerusalem neighborhood] Beit Hanina to Arnona."

RAMI NASRALLAH, an east Jerusalem resident and director of the International Peace and Cooperation Center (IPCC), isn't as optimistic. The elimination of the Nablus Road office means everyone in need of consular services will have to enter west Jerusalem.

"For Palestinians," he says, "it's not a secure space." Nasrallah, who is involved in a number of high-level Israeli-Palestinian research projects regarding the future of Jerusalem, said the new office's location within a residential, predominantly Jewish area is "problematic not for security reasons, but for reasons of accessibility. Maybe it's convenient for the consulate, but it's not convenient for the average Palestinian citizen."

Not all Arnona residents agree that a daily inflow of east Jerusalem and West Bank residents won't represent a security concern. The August 2002 decision to move the facility from Nablus Road was prompted in part by terrorist attacks in the area, including a shooting that month that left three people dead. Following the announcement of the move, the Interior Ministry rejected Arnona residents' security-related appeals to cancel the construction, and consulate officials said "residents of the neighborhood should be assured that we take the security of our facilities and their surroundings very seriously."

Israel Police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said that while diplomatic facilities run their own security operations, the Israel Police provides "high levels of security" to surrounding areas.

Yet citing security concerns, both he and Schweitzer-Bluhm declined to describe specific measures that will protect the new consular section.

The issue was further complicated by the November announcement that diplomatic responsibility for Palestinians in Gaza would be transferred from the US embassy in Tel Aviv to the consular section on Nablus Road - and, presumably, to the Arnona facility after completion.

Despite the questions left unanswered, Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies researcher Israel Kimche sees potential benefits for both east and west Jerusalem residents. As Kimche sees it, the replacement of the diplomatic facility in east Jerusalem with a new consular section on the city's west side could lead to the building of an embassy and official US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over that part of the city.

Such a facility could serve both Israelis and citizens of a future Palestine, he said, or it could be joined by a second US embassy in east Jerusalem or a Palestinian suburb.

Either way, he said, an American embassy in Jerusalem would hasten the relocation of other foreign embassies, which in turn would bring more jobs and money into the city.

"If we have two embassies, both states will gain," he said, "and that would also be good for peace." •