U.S. May Speed Up Jerusalem Embassy Move to as Early as 2019

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration accelerated its timetable for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, weighing a plan to retrofit the existing consulate there by the end of 2019 in order to fulfill a key campaign pledge by the president.

Building a new embassy would have taken too long and is “cost-prohibitive” so “we’re going to retrofit an existing facility,” Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said in a phone interview.

He said President Donald Trump was briefed on the plan Thursday. But after initially describing the plan as final, Goldstein later said “the decision memo has not been signed, and until it is there won’t be a final determination.”

The president announced in December that the U.S. would move its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. At the same time, he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That provoked protests from across the Middle East and beyond. Palestinian leaders said Trump’s declaration disqualified Washington as a mediator in the long-running peace process.

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is provocative because the eastern part of the city -- home to some of the holiest ancient sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- is also claimed by Palestinians as the capital of a future state. The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the decision soon after Trump made the announcement.

Campaign Promises

The embassy decision allows Trump to carry out a campaign vow made by a generation of presidential candidates but set aside after they took office, worried it would disrupt a fragile peace process. Congress passed a law in 1995 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and requiring the president to move the American embassy to the city, but previous U.S. leaders have invoked waivers permitted under the law to avoid starting that process.

White House and State Department officials had previously warned it would take well beyond Trump’s first term to identify a site for the new embassy and construct the building. An administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, said Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been working on a proposed peace deal, was impatient with the longer timeline.

The official said that the idea of enhancing security at the existing facility to make it the embassy was a compromise. Ambassador David Friedman would then move to Jerusalem with his staff.

Canceling or putting off construction of a costly new embassy might have appeal to Trump: Last week he tweeted his disapproval of the new $1 billion U.S. embassy in London, writing, “Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon -- NO!”

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