US Embassy in Jerusalem plans ambitious expansion

Jerusalem has green-lighted building permits that may reshape the city – for better and for worse.

Deputy Mayor for Foreign Relations, Economic Development and Tourism Fleur Hassan-Nahoum on the site of planned expansion of the US Embassy in Jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy)
Deputy Mayor for Foreign Relations, Economic Development and Tourism Fleur Hassan-Nahoum on the site of planned expansion of the US Embassy in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When former US president Donald Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem three years ago, he upheld a promise given decades earlier and fueled a vision of Israel’s capital as a world metropolis. The hope was that once the US does it, other nations would follow and Jerusalemites would live in what once seemed a Messianic dream: a city filled with embassies, consulates and cultural centers hard at work building the best possible relations between the Jewish state and the nations of the earth.
Two new permits the city green-lighted recently – one an expansion of the current location on the slopes of Arnona to a five-floor building and the other a construction of a 10-floor building as part of a larger compound at northern Arnona (or Talpiot) on the corners of Hebron Road, Daniel Yanovski St. and Hanoch Albek St. – envision the US Embassy being an “anchor” that will transform the entire urban space around it into a diplomatic sector, Deputy Mayor for Foreign Relations, Economic Development and Tourism Fleur Hassan-Nahoum said. She pointed out that the current plans have been deposited at the local council, the next stage will be to show them to the district committee, after which members of the pubic may present their objections.
The Americans requested permits to expand the existing embassy structure and build a new one, without stating which would be what, an embassy or a consulate, apartments for the families of serving diplomats or office spaces, as they are still at the early stages of this project. It is estimated roughly 700 construction workers will start working in about two years’ time and end the project more or less around 2026.
Former director of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) Addison Davis IV met with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion to discuss the project, a clear sign of commitment. US State Department officials entrusted with ensuring the welfare of American diplomatic families began discussing schools and services available ahead of the planned move.
When the US Embassy in London opened its new location in Nine Elms on the banks of the Thames four years ago, the impact of the $1b. project on the southwest district there was so big it merited its own term, “the embassy effect,” Hassan-Nahoum explained. 
When such an important institution opens, safety improves, as the hosting country, in this case the UK, must ensure nobody will be harmed on the way there or near it. The hundreds of people employed at the embassy need to eat and drink, get haircuts, buy groceries and drugstore items, etc., so local businesses boom. 
In her vision, once the complete US Embassy in Jerusalem opens its gates everything will improve. Facing Hebron Road, the planned American Embassy will be easily reached by foot for those using the nearby light-rail station, also meant to be operational by that time. 
The urban space touching Armon Hanatziv neighborhood to the east of Arnona will be transformed into a diplomatic space with new construction of future hotels and offices to serve the larger diplomatic community. Hassan-Nahoum is careful to point out that the park’s trees will not be destroyed but integrated in the new space and that the view of the Old City’s iconic Dome of the Rock from the promenade is likely to inspire any visiting civil servant.
PROPOSED PLAN for US Embassy compound. (Courtesy Jerusalem City Hall)PROPOSED PLAN for US Embassy compound. (Courtesy Jerusalem City Hall)
When Germany reunified in 1990, Berlin faced a similar situation to that of Jerusalem as diplomatic missions began to migrate to the new capital from Bonn. The Berlin solution was the creation of an entire new service called Embassy Exchange to help the diplomatic community deal with the move. Jerusalem, so it seems, has the Gibraltar-born Hassan-Nahoum, who attends Zoom meetings, discusses relations with local residents and responds to complete strangers who ask her for her input about tourism – all at once. 
“When there’s a will there’s a way,” she says. “A public servant must serve the public.”
In their outstanding 2002 book Jerusalem Ambush, Nimrod Goren and Akiva Eldar reveal that another option for Armon Hanatziv was at least discussed. Should the US open its embassy in Jerusalem and a diplomatic wave would follow, it was suggested to build the diplomatic sector on Har Heret. While offering a beautiful view, the plan was quickly dropped as impractical. Diplomats on Har Heret would be in an almost comical situation, needing to drive to get to any place of importance and lacking any necessary services.
TO BETTER understand the meaning of the recent shift in US foreign policy, one should consult Goren and Eldar to learn how in the early 1960s the US actually twisted the arms of other nations, among them Japan, Ethiopia and Venezuela, to encourage them not to open their embassies in the city.
The issue of Jerusalem was deemed so controversial that the Italian ambassador submitted his letter to then-president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi when the Israeli statesman was in Tiberias for a summer vacation rather than come to the official presidential residence in Jerusalem. Mindful of its interests in the larger Arab and Muslim world, the US allowed its consulate in Jerusalem to enjoy a direct line with the State Department rather than having it answer to the US ambassador in Tel Aviv. The consulate was often used by Palestinians as their channel of diplomatic communication with the US. The practice was stopped when Trump appointed former ambassador David Friedman. Kuwait refused to approve US diplomat Brandon Groove in 1983 after learning he served in the American Consulate here. Nominated National Security Council senior director Barbara Leaf also served at the consulate when she began her diplomacy career. 
Once Friedman vacated his post for the incoming Biden administration appointee, the Twitter page of the US ambassador in Israel was revised to describe him as the ambassador to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It was hastily changed back to name just Israel. While working on this story, several sources speaking off the record shared their impression that everyone is holding their collective breath to see which way the winds blow as a new president enters the White House, with a new direction for America and the world.
“The Biden administration will have to decide what they intend to do,” Dr. Amnon Ramon from the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research told In Jerusalem. “Trump broke the rules, now those in charge will have to work much more carefully.” 
What Ramon means is that, since the 1995 US Embassy Act, each president signed a waiver allowing the execution of the move a six-month stay. “What will they do? Charge ahead and build, continue to sit in the current location, or find another space? There aren’t many available spaces and Jerusalem is an expensive city.” 
Ramon notes that Armon Hanatziv itself, referring to the old British-mandate Government House which lent the name to the neighborhood, is disputed since neither Jordan nor Israel got ahold of it after 1948. 
“The UN decided they need it and moved in,” he joked, “nobody asked them to!” Currently, many among the diplomatic community reside in central and coastal Israel, and it remains to be seen with what enthusiasm, if any, a move to the capital will be met. 
A CAB driver I rode with to visit the US Embassy expressed his feelings loudly and clearly. 
“It’s all nonsense,” he said in French-accented Hebrew. “All they did is put up a sign and call it an embassy because [late philanthropist] Sheldon Adelson pressured Trump to do it. Who cares where it is? Anyone who needs the embassy will go there no matter where it is, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.”
TWEET FROM Ido Klein, TAU research fellow, on how plan degrades neighborhood connectivity: #UrbanDesignFeed  On the unspoken tragedy of the Arnona slopes and US Embassy compound, approved yesterday:  The slopes are one more ‘balloon-like’ neighborhood now being planned in Jerusalem, in its southeastern part, already greenlighted by the council [committee]. The housing units there number one-third of Rekhes Lavan (1,800) [referring to endangered nature site White Ridge] but there are currently two-and-a-half entrances to the neighborhood.’ (Twitter)TWEET FROM Ido Klein, TAU research fellow, on how plan degrades neighborhood connectivity: #UrbanDesignFeed On the unspoken tragedy of the Arnona slopes and US Embassy compound, approved yesterday: The slopes are one more ‘balloon-like’ neighborhood now being planned in Jerusalem, in its southeastern part, already greenlighted by the council [committee]. The housing units there number one-third of Rekhes Lavan (1,800) [referring to endangered nature site White Ridge] but there are currently two-and-a-half entrances to the neighborhood.’ (Twitter)
Retired diplomat and Arnona resident Miryam Shomrat, who was the Israeli ambassador to Finland from 2000 to 2003 and to Norway from 2005 to 2008, deeply cares where the embassy finds a home.
“Why do we have to see a wall every morning?” she asks. 
Having served in the Foreign Ministry for many years before retirement, she believes the speedy process the US Embassy enjoyed in obtaining permits is deeply flawed when compared to how things usually are. When the original US Consulate plans were approved, the approval was granted due to the Americans having taken into account the interests of local residents, she said. 
“It’s inconceivable that a fast-track permit originally granted in 2018 for a limited modification will be expanded to mean a construction of a 50,000 square meter compound,” she said.
“The host country is fully responsible for the safety of diplomats serving there,” she explains, “Israeli embassies might request to put up a wall or install a security camera in European capitals, but they are usually met with refusal.” Not so here.
According to her, the US Embassy originally requested to build a wall 19 feet (5.8 meters) high and due to an appeal to court, agreed to make it only 10 feet (three meters). 
“If, God forbid, the US Embassy is attacked by rockets or a drone, how will a wall help them?” she asks. “This isn’t Kabul or Bagdad; this country’s security forces are more than able to defend the American Embassy. Nobel Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon lived here and spoke about this splendid view when he got the award in 1966,” she argued, “I live on the fourth floor, if they build a five-floor building, the view of all families in my building and in all the buildings that face the compound will vanish from sight.”
While she understands the pressures the city was under (Trump wanted the embassy move done fast), she rages against what she describes as the refusal of Jerusalem officials to meet with her or with other neighbors of the embassy and present the plans in their current state. 
“I think this whole thing is a fig leaf meant to conceal city hall’s plans to build a massive office space and change the nature of this neighborhood,” Shomrat claims. “I don’t imagine American diplomats would really want to take their families to live in a secure compound in a city like Jerusalem. It makes a lot more sense for diplomatic offices to be located in the new high-rise towers already approved for construction at the entrance to the city, near the Foreign Ministry.”
Noting that as a resident of Jerusalem she pays arnona (city tax), she becomes stern when she explains the city, in her view, broke the social contract with her and others who live there.
“There’s no one to talk to. Moshe Lion should have defended our interests. Should the sovereign State of Israel broker such a deal? A process which seems to be facilitated by a yielding government?” she asked.
“I don’t believe it was the intention of the US State Department to be led down that road by an ambassador with his own political agenda.”  
WASHINGTON DC-born Arnie Draiman, who lived in Jerusalem for 36 years, told In Jerusalem that he thinks the wall is actually pretty.
“I thought they’d build something with gray concrete, but they made one using Jerusalem stone and installed spotlights,” he observed. “I grew up in Washington, and that [a wall] is the price you have to pay to live in a capital city.” 
Working in the NGO sector, he voiced concern that elderly immigrants currently living in the Diplomat Hotel might face uncertainty once construction starts. Hassan-Nahoum said living solutions for all of them will be found before any final approvals are granted.
Australian-born Tania Hammer, now an Arnona resident, supports the expansion of the US diplomatic presence.
“Jerusalem should be built up,” she said. However, she thinks construction should be in relation to the needs of local residents, for example, done from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. so that people won’t be unduly disturbed by the sound of jackhammers. 
“But construction must take place. If it weren’t the US Embassy, it would be a hotel or a museum,” she points out.
“They have to look after their workers,” she added, noting that several construction workers knocked on her door asking to use her restroom as no options were provided for them on the building site. She marched down to the site and gave the supervisor a piece of her mind. 
“It’s shameful. They must invest in portable toilets for all these people,” she said. She sees the development as a good thing, as it will bring more jobs, and more business, into the neighborhood.
A friend who has lived in the city for decades noted that years ago the slogan was, “Move to Jerusalem and enjoy the view of the Judean Desert,” but that hasn’t been the case for quite some time now. High-rise buildings block the view, security fences and walls cover the facades of churches, blocking the vista when one walks the streets, and even passageways that used to connect streets between large buildings have mostly been sealed off due to security concerns.
The symbolic impact of a superpower like the US moving its diplomatic presence to a city sacred to three major world religions must find some expression in the architecture and design of the structure. While Hassan-Nahoum said the new embassy building will weave together American visual culture and regional motifs, In Jerusalem was unable to discuss the design with architect Yigal Levi, who declined to comment.
“The Americans have been very decent when dealing with local residents,” Hassan-Nahoum said. “They agreed not to work during Holocaust Memorial Day and to refrain from noisy construction at night.” 
Fully committed to a vision of a capital humming with diplomatic affairs and international-level schools, she gazed at the view from Armon Hanatziv and enthused, “There’s lots of land – lots and lots of land.”