Red, white and blue: America's big move in Jerusalem

With the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem next week, America paves the diplomatic path to Israel’s capital.

Side-by-side Israeli and American flags line the road down from the US Consulate General in the Arnona neighborhood (photo credit: REUTERS)
Side-by-side Israeli and American flags line the road down from the US Consulate General in the Arnona neighborhood
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The fact that the American Embassy is officially being transferred to Jerusalem on May 14 isn’t causing any euphoria in the Zivotofsky family, formerly of the United States and living in Israel for most of the last two decades.
The Beit Shemesh family waged a 12-year losing battle to have Israel listed as the birthplace on the American passport of third child Menachem, now 15, who was born in Jerusalem after the family made aliya from Maryland in 2000.
At that time, the US State Department did not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, even though Congress had passed the Jerusalem US Embassy Act in October 1995 and the following month issued a declaration supporting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Furthermore, in 2002, Congress decided that the State Department should give American citizens born in Jerusalem the right to choose whether Jerusalem or Israel should be listed in their passports as their place of birth.
That law was invalidated in July 2013 by a US federal appeals court, and in June 2015 the US Supreme Court, in a 6 to 3 ruling, determined that Congress had gone overboard in an area of legislation, in which a decision of this kind could be made only by the US president. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama declined to endorse that which Congress had demanded from the State Department.
Despite President Donald Trump’s decision last December to announce America’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a State Department official subsequently told an Associated Press reporter that “at this time, there are no changes to our current practices regarding place of birth on consular reports of birth abroad and US passports.”
Menachem Zivotofsky’s father, Ari, told The Jerusalem Post Magazine that his family and their legal representation have resumed the legal battle, but have so far been rebuffed.
“Despite the fact that the embassy is being relocated to Jerusalem, the US State Department is still refusing to recognize that Jerusalem is in Israel and issue a new passport stating that Menachem – and more than 50,000 other American citizens born in Jerusalem – were born in Israel.” This leads to an absurd situation wherein the US recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but does not recognize that city as part of the country that it is the capital of.
13 WHETHER THIS policy will change after May 14 is anyone’s guess. But the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a watershed moment in the history of Israel and its relationship with its closest friend, the United States. Early this week, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat took advantage of a natural photo opportunity and posed alongside street signs pointing to the “US Embassy,” and during the week, momentum built toward the official ceremony slated to take place on Monday.
Many people attribute the relocation of the embassy to current US Ambassador David Friedman, who prior to taking office was a staunch right-wing Zionist activist and a great supporter of the Jewish population living in the West Bank. Friedman has shrugged off the accolades and gives all the credit to Trump, but there is a strong belief that without Friedman’s input, it would not have happened.
Without detracting for a moment from Trump’s heroic and historic gesture, the true historian will say that what Trump did when he announced in December 2017 that the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was simply to endorse the Jerusalem Embassy Act that was passed by the 104th Congress on October 23, 1995, and became law on November 8 of that year.
It is only a matter of time before stand-up comedians will begin producing material related to Friedman, with comments to the effect that King David has returned to Jerusalem – as Friedman’s Hebrew name is David Melech.
Although he is moving his office and some of his staff to Jerusalem, according to a reliable source who asked not to be named, the ambassador will be on a daily commute from the American residence in Herzliya Pituah to Jerusalem, except on such occasions when he makes use of his suite at the King David Hotel. Up until now, this has usually happened when top-ranking American dignitaries visit Israel and stay overnight in Jerusalem.
Friedman actually owns an apartment in the capital, but the security infrastructure that would be required to enable him to live there as ambassador would probably raise objections from his neighbors.
Rumor has it that he would like to transfer the American ambassador’s residence to the premises currently occupied by the US Consulate-General on Agron Street, which is less than a five-minute walk to any of the luxury hotels in which American dignitaries stay. As Friedman is religiously observant, it is also conveniently close to more than a dozen synagogues, in addition to being within easy walking distance of the Old City and the Western Wall.
The irony is that the more than 20 consuls and honorary consuls operating in Jerusalem are all accredited to the Palestinians rather than to Israel, but in the majority of cases, their offices and residences are in West Jerusalem.
The fourth member of the Jewish faith to be appointed US ambassador to Israel, Friedman, more than any of his predecessors, identifies openly with Jewish and Israeli festivals and Jewish and Israeli tragedies.
Last year, he was the first US ambassador to join in the official Jerusalem Day celebrations outside of the Tower of David in the Old City. As a kohen – a member of the priestly tribe – he has joined others of his ilk on special days of blessing at the Western Wall and has posted messages about such experiences on his Twitter account. He also identifies openly with families who have lost loved ones to terrorism.
Last week he attended a Lag Ba’omer bonfire in Tel Aviv and tweeted, “From Kikar Hamedina in Tel Aviv, wishing Jews everywhere a happy Lag Ba’omer. Stay safe and don’t eat too many marshmallows!” A sample of some of his other tweets: “Joined with the [email protected] last night at the Begin Center to recall the legacy of Menachem Begin and his extraordinary contributions to the State of #Israel and the Jewish People. He will never be forgotten.”
“At Mount Herzl tonight (Israel’s Arlington Cemetery), Israelis abruptly shifted from mourning their losses to celebrating the miracle of their 70th anniversary. As King David said from Jerusalem 3,000 years ago (Psalm 30), from tears at night come joy in the morning.”
“Twenty years ago I gave an ambulance to [the settlement of] Har Bracha hoping it would be used to deliver healthy babies. Instead, a man from Har Bracha was just murdered by a terrorist, leaving behind a wife and four children. Palestinian ‘leaders’ have praised the killer. Praying for the Ben-Gal family.”
FOR BARKAT , who for the last time will be hosting a Jerusalem Day reception at the Tower of David, the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem is the kind of swan song that he could have only dreamed of after his first election.
The transfer of the US Embassy was initially planned for next year, but when it was brought forward Barkat stated, “President Trump’s historic declaration has shown the world that he stands on the side of truth and is a true friend of the city of Jerusalem. We commend the administration for this bold step and I look forward to welcoming my dear friend Ambassador Friedman to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, on May 14.”
Inasmuch as this is an issue of great importance for Israel, it is apparently even more so for America, given the size of the US delegation arriving for the occasion. Unless there is a last-minute change, Trump will not head the delegation, which will be led by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Invitations to Monday’s event are a hot commodity, but with a delegation of an estimated 250 prominent American figures coming to Jerusalem to participate in the relocation ceremony. there are severe constraints on the number of Israeli dignitaries who could be placed on the guest list, and several Israeli MKs are seething because they were omitted for lack of space.
Even President Reuven Rivlin did not receive an invitation until a week and a half before the ceremony. The invitation arrived at his office last week while he was in Ethiopia. Rivlin is a seventh-generation Jerusalemite who worked in military intelligence during the Six Day War. It’s not certain that he would have been invited were he not head of state. Scions of other veteran Jerusalem families – such as the Baruch Mizrachi family, which has lived in Jerusalem since 1620; the Navon family since 1670; the Meyuhas family since 1695; the Parnas family for at least 16 generations; and the Matza family for 15 generations; among many other Jerusalem families whose ancestors came to the Holy City centuries ago and are buried on the Mount of Olives – did not make it on the guest list, and some would argue that their right to be there is greater than that of any politician not born in Jerusalem or even Israel.
IT’S NOT certain that the new American embassy, which has yet to be built, will be located in Arnona where there is a second US Consulate, and where Friedman will have an office until there is a permanent embassy building.
In 2014 the heirs of Haim Shiff, who built the nearby Diplomat Hotel, sold the facility to the US government. The hotel was long ago transformed into what might be referred to as a sheltered living center for elderly immigrants, primarily from the former Soviet Union.
The Americans are in a bind. Ideally, they would like to pull down the building and put up a new structure on the extensive tract of land. But they don’t want to be perceived as lacking sensitivity for the plight of elderly people who have nowhere else to go. Over the past four years, there has been an ongoing battle between the Aliya and Integration Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality as to who is responsible for finding alternate accommodation for the Diplomat’s residents.
What prescience Shiff must have had to choose that particular name for his project.
The Americans had hoped that the resident population of the Diplomat would eventually die, but there is little likelihood of that, because as soon as one of the studio apartments in the building becomes vacant, the ministry moves another occupant in.
The Americans, without disqualifying their first choice, are therefore looking for another suitable site, possibly in a more central and easily accessible location.
THE AMERICANS are even more security-conscious than Israelis, a factor that has already become a source of annoyance to people living in Arnona and surroundings. The bright lights, the patrols, the new security escape road should the ambassador ever need it, are all sources of annoyance and inconvenience, and part of the price Israelis have to pay for American recognition of something that has long been self-evident but which will have vital political consequences.
Last month, some of the neighborhood’s residents who are unhappy about the developments that are intruding on their lifestyle submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice, but it was apparently little more than a gesture.
Guatemala is moving its embassy to Jerusalem two days after the Americans, and there is talk of at least half a dozen other embassies following suit.
Prior to 1967, the number of embassies in Jerusalem reached double-digit figures. The last to leave due to political pressure were Costa Rica and El Salvador, whose foreign ministries announced in August 2006 that they were moving to the Coast- al Plain.
In response to the diplomatic exodus from Jerusalem, the International Christian Embassy established a presence in the city in 1980 and has since grown dramatically, bringing thousands of Christian pilgrims from dozens of countries around the world to celebrate Sukkot in Jerusalem. It also celebrates Jerusalem Day, which it did this week with Guatemalan Ambassador Sara Angelina Solis; and Hanukka, which it celebrates in conjunction with Christmas. The Christian Embassy also provides kosher catering at events to which it has invited a significant number of Jewish guests. When the embassies of Costa Rica and El Salvador were still located in Jerusalem, their ambassadors were regular guests at such events.
It was pure coincidence that the last two ambassadors of these countries in Jerusalem happened to be Jewish.
If, as anticipated, many embassies follow the US example – especially if the Trump peace plan takes root and there is implementation of a political solution – the price of real estate in Jerusalem will shoot up beyond belief.
As it is, land designated for residential purposes is scarce, which is why Jerusalem, like Tel Aviv, is beginning to look like Hong Kong, building upward – albeit not at the same rapid pace as Tel Aviv.
It was therefore not surprising that Barkat, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin (who is weighing the possibility of running for mayor), Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Gallant; Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Doron Neuwirth, CEO of Moriah Jerusalem Development Company, and Haim Avitan, chairman of the Government Authority for Urban Renewal were all present at the national real estate conference on innovation held at the beginning of this past week at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
An embassy residential row must be planned well in advance of a mass influx, and suitable buildings have to be found for the housing of embassies. Such buildings should be easily accessible by public transportation and should not be too far from the center of town.
In addition to embassies per se, there also has to be suitable housing for embassy staff. At the moment, most deputy chiefs of mission live in spacious homes in Herzliya Pituah and Kfar Shmaryahu. They cannot be expected to move to more modest accommodations in Jerusalem.
Many diplomats will be pleased at the opportunity to take up residence in Jerusalem, where in addition to the various professional calls they have to make to government ministries and the Knesset, they enjoy going to their respective holy sites and to simply stroll through the Old City. Many bring visiting relatives on a tour of Jerusalem.
For those diplomats who are likely to relocate to Jerusalem, there will be considerable savings of time and expenditure on fuel and on lunches. (They will not have to eat out as often as they do now, when they have a full day of business in the capital.)
WHAT IMPACT will the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem have on the chances for peace? Calling the US a dishonest broker, the Palestinian Authority has dismissed the US from its key role of advancing peace and says the US peace plan being worked on will not even be considered. Others, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, say that recognition of the reality that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital by the US will advance peace, as true peace must be based on honesty and truth.
In the midst of all the excitement leading up to the relocation of the US Embassy, what this means for the Palestinians and the country’s Arab population cannot be overlooked. While Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations began in accordance with the Jewish calendar anniversary, the world in general observes the Gregorian calendar, and May 14, the date on which on which the State of Israel was born, is also the date in which the first major step toward relocating the embassy will be made.
The date also happens to be the 70th anniversary of the “nakba,” which the Arabs who reluctantly share this land regard as the great calamity in their history. As if this were not enough, the relocation ceremony takes place two days after the Jewish calendar anniversary of Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the victory of the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem. The festivities always include a flag dance by hundreds of people through the center of the city and on to the Western Wall. This is regarded as a provocative in-your-face week by much of the Arab population.
Israel’s security establishment has to be on high alert against Arab unrest and the possibility of another intifada.
Yet in the interim, reports have been published to the effect that Trump wants Israel to cede certain Arab neighborhoods such as Jebl Mukaber, Isawiya, Shuafat and Abu Dis that are currently within the boundaries of Jerusalem, and could eventually be part of a Palestinian state. Those reports can exacerbate tensions on both sides and could affect the gala May 14 embassy move. Expect heightened security throughout the capital leading up to the event – and beyond.
“We’re not guarding the embassy signs, but of course there is upgraded security around the embassy that is already being implemented,” Barkat said. “There are also new CCTV cameras that have been set up in the area. The perimeter and all movement in the area are being closely watched.”
In fact, it’s safe to assume that eyes from all around the world will be on the area next week – a fateful time for Israel and the region.
In Beit Shemesh, Ari Zivotofsky is pleased that a US president “has finally kept his campaign promise and that the US is finally willing to be an impartial negotiator. Until now, by keeping the embassy out of Jerusalem, the US has been effectively siding with the Palestinians, setting a precondition that Israel has no claim to Jerusalem.”
He is hopeful that the US position on his son’s passport – like the location of the embassy – will one day shift.