Diplomatic construction

Israel is the only country whose American embassy is not located in its self-proclaimed capital.

US consulate 88 (photo credit: )
US consulate 88
(photo credit: )
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 needed to 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 next 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 percent 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." Four years passed, and just weeks short of that deadline, Jerusalem residents watched as a new American embassy opened its doors in a previously divided capital. After decades of waiting, the US ambassador would finally serve in the once bitterly contested city: Berlin. Jerusalem, meanwhile, would have to keep waiting. The US embassy in Israel remains in Tel Aviv today, as it was in 1995. Now, however, more than a decade after the Embassy Relocation Act was passed in Congress, crews are working on a new facility to hold the offices of American diplomatic staff in Jerusalem. While both city officials and representatives of the US consulate in Jerusalem remain vague about many of the details concerning the new building, the project raises both familiar and new questions about whether the American government will eventually comply with the law passed by overwhelming majorities in both the US Senate (with a vote of 93-5) and the House of Representatives (374-37) ten years ago. In interviews and e-mail exchanges conducted over the past several weeks, both American and Israeli officials consistently stressed that the new structure, to be built in west Jerusalem's Arnona neighborhood, is for the time being intended merely as a replacement for the US consular facility currently 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 20.5 dunams - just over 5 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 stretch serving traffic from both the eastern and western sides of the city. Side streets closer to the site are narrow - several are one-way - and increased traffic generated by the new facility has been a concern to residents of the area. Consular officials have predicted that the new offices will attract up to 100 cars hourly to the residential neighborhood - an inflow officials hope to manage with a 200-vehicle underground parking garage to be located at the site. Construction of the facility will take place in two stages, according to consulate spokesperson Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm. In the first step, 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 city residents hoping to travel, study or work in the United States. American citizens will be able to visit the new consular section to receive passports, federal benefits, birth certificates and other services. While construction on the new facility will begin soon after the consulate receives municipal approval - an application for a construction permit was submitted over the summer - it remains unclear when the second stage of construction would 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" at the new facility. Schweitzer-Bluhm repeatedly declined to answer In Jerusalem's questions about whether the consulate's newest buildings would be equipped to house the US embassy to Israel at a future date. And because neither the consulate nor the city would release details about the design, scale or cost of the structure, it's difficult to discern just what kind of facility could someday represent the American government at the site. What's known now is that the location of the US embassy in Israel remains among the most sensitive subjects of American diplomacy in the region - and 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, well before the United States had become a military or economic power playing much of a role outside its own borders. The first American consulate in Jerusalem sat inside the Old City - along with virtually all the city's residents - not far from Jaffa Gate. Descriptions of early consular activities in Jerusalem sound almost impossibly quaint today, with the first consuls forced to charge tourist fees to American visitors to supplement their own insufficient government salaries. The US moved its Jerusalem consulate to the current location on Agron Street in 1912, taking over a house built by a German Lutheran missionary in the 1860s. The first world war cemented America's status as a rising military and economic power, and the country opened a second consular facility not long after the war 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 more than 1,400 percent, from roughly 50,000 after WWI to over 750,000 today. The United States was the first foreign power to recognize Israel after it declared independence in 1948, but the country never established its embassy in Jerusalem, even after the city became the country's capital in 1950. Though congressional resolutions have long called for Jerusalem's official recognition as Israel's capital, American presidents have consistently resisted taking concrete action on the issue, citing a desire not to pre-judge the city's status before the completion of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Consequently, initiatives to transfer the American embassy have emanated from the US Congress, whose members have long been lobbied by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other activist groups. 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 self-proclaimed capital. AIPAC in particular has encouraged Congress members to write and cosponsor legislation mandating the embassy's move, and over time, the issue has become something of a litmus test for congressional candidates' views about Jerusalem as a whole and how to achieve Arab-Israeli peace. The US is hardly alone in its hesitation to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Just two countries - El Salvador and Costa Rica - maintain embassies in the city, with every other foreign ambassador to Israel joining the US ambassador in Tel Aviv. The transfer of any country's embassy to Jerusalem would be interpreted by both the Israeli government and the Palestinians as diplomatic validation of Israel's official position on the city, which is that Jerusalem will always remain united under Israeli control. Such a move would set off a wave of political and popular protest across the Arab world, and would produce tremendous damage to relations with that region. For that reason, the Embassy Relocation Act of 1995 provided a waiver clause when the time came for construction to begin on America's first embassy in Jerusalem. 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 what constitutes a "national security interest," and former president Bill Clinton used the clause to postpone the construction of the new embassy. The change of administration in 2000 didn't alter White House policy regarding the law, either. President George W. Bush, a Republican, has followed the lead of his Democratic predecessor in repeatedly using the postponement, most recently in June. There's nothing to suggest he won't use it a ninth time later this month. Should the Embassy Relocation Act be implemented in the future, multiple options exist for where to locate it. While Schweitzer-Bluhm of the American consulate avoided commenting on the suitability of the new consular facility to serve as an embassy, the 20.5-acre property could conceivably be adapted to house the new embassy. An additional possibility - an alternative site - is located not far from where the new consular offices will be built. A January 1989 agreement between Israel and the United States provided a roughly 31-dunam (7.8-acre) plot of land in west Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood for the construction of a "diplomatic facility." Under the terms of the agreement, the American government would pay $1 annually for up to 99 years to lease the property, which was once home to the Allenby Barracks - the British army's Jerusalem garrison. Attempts to interview officials connected to the embassy issue highlighted the topic's politically sensitive nature. Consulate representatives declined to answer questions about the Arnona facility's cost or potential to serve as a future embassy, and were similarly disinclined to respond 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 municipality representatives declined to discuss whether city officials were currently taking or had previously taken steps to promote the embassy's move to Jerusalem, or what effects the move might have on the capital's political status, economy and cultural life. Even AIPAC, which has long lobbied the US Congress in support of relocating the embassy, declined to comment on what current efforts, if any, 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 for its members, 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 Embassy Act's waiver clause, but the issue appears to have been displaced more recently by other lobbying efforts, most of which are related to the disengagement, Hizbullah and Iran's nuclear weapons program. Those concerns may also help to explain the Israeli government's disinclination to press for the relocation of the American embassy. Perhaps with an eye on those other issues, foreign ministry spokesperson 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 partially built within sections of Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, the location of the new consular 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 that everyone in need of consular services will need to enter west Jerusalem. "For Palestinians," he says, "it's not a secure space." Nasrallah, who is involved in a number of high-level joint Israeli-Palestinian research projects regarding the future of Jerusalem, said that 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 that "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 foreign diplomatic facilities run their own security operations, the Israel Police provide "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 and neighborhood residents after its construction. The issue has been 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 its completion. With Palestinians able to leave Gaza only through the Rafah crossing into Sinai, it's unclear how Palestinians and Americans in Gaza will be able to receive consular services. The policy adjustment took effect yesterday. Despite the questions left unanswered about the construction set to take place in Arnona, Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies researcher Israel Kimche sees potential benefits for both east and west Jerusalem residents in the location of the new facility. As Kimche sees it, the replacement of the American diplomatic facility in east Jerusalem with a new consular section on the city's western side could eventually 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 establishment of other foreign embassies here, 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." The Jerusalem Ambush, a book published in 2000 by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, detailed the efforts to bring the American embassy to Jerusalem. Haaretz reporter Akiva Eldar, who co-authored the book with Nimrod Goren, expressed skepticism that the embassy will arrive here before a final peace settlement is reached. "The bottom line is that according to our analysis, it's either two embassies in Jerusalem or none," said Eldar. "The consideration we have to give it is [whether] we are ready to see an American embassy in east Jerusalem and one in west Jerusalem, because I don't believe that the Americans will move the embassy to just one side." Asked whether his understanding of the situation had changed during the Intifada, Eldar said, "I would not only repeat this today, but I would underline it because of Iraq, because of America's delicate situation in the Middle East. They are not looking for more trouble with the Muslim world." Ten years on, the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act is perhaps most striking as an artifact of its time, reflecting the optimism of the early Oslo period and of America's less complicated relationship with the Middle East. Adopted less than two weeks before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the congressional deadline set for the new Jerusalem embassy would have coincided with the conclusion of the peace process, when Jerusalem's status and other final status issues were already to have been resolved. Rabin, however, was probably not convinced by the Act that a US embassy would materialize in Jerusalem anytime soon. Eldar recalled a conversation with the late prime minister, who remembered being told by then-House Minority Leader Gerald Ford that, as president, one of his first moves would be to transfer the American embassy to Jerusalem. Reminded of the promise after he'd assumed the presidency, the Republican leader told Rabin - Israel's ambassador to Washington at the time - that "life from the White House looks much different." As a practical matter, the issue has been "forgotten," Eldar said, though congress members continue to bring it up from time to time. In areas with large Jewish American populations, Eldar said, the subject "has become a cheap shot for politicians running for office." Even after the landmark 1991 vote moving West Germany's "provisional" capital back to Berlin, it took the American State Department eight years to return its embassy to the historic German capital. A resolution introduced in the US Senate earlier this year suggests a similar transfer of the embassy here, but in terms markedly less forceful and specific than the Embassy Act of 1995. One of the conditions included in the bill - and one notably absent from the earlier law - is that the move take place "not later than 180 days" before the US recognizes a Palestinian state. If adopted, the bill would create an array of new political options - and dangers - for Israeli and American policymakers. But with both countries focused on other priorities and Israel's security barrier slowly splitting Jerusalem in two, it's as unclear as ever where or how an embassy would be established here. As work on the city's new consular facility proceeds, however, the need to answer such questions appears to remain a good distance in the future. Out of a possible 100 signatures, the "Jerusalem Resolution," as it's called by its authors, has received four endorsements on the floor of the Senate.