A man opens his shop in the Christian quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photographer: Geraldine Hope Ghelli/Bloomberg)

U.S. to Open Jerusalem Embassy as Palestinians Protest Move

(Bloomberg) -- One of President Donald Trump’s most contentious foreign policy projects, the inauguration of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, will be carried out Monday even as peace in the Middle East seems more elusive than ever.

Trump, who vowed to move the embassy from Tel Aviv during his campaign, is to address invitees to the designation ceremony via video conference. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan are among the U.S. delegation.

“Many presidents signed a waiver for national security reasons not to move the embassy,” Mnuchin said at a reception hosted by an Orthodox Jewish group Monday morning. “President Trump is moving the embassy because it’s a national security priority to have the embassy here in Jerusalem.”

When Trump declared Dec. 6 that “it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” he said he hoped the move would spur renewed peace negotiations. Instead, the decision angered much of the Middle East, including U.S. allies, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responded by breaking off all contact with the Trump administration.

“It ended the role of the United States as an honest broker,” Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Abbas and former chief negotiator with Israel, told reporters last week as he stood on a hillside between the diplomatic compound and the east Jerusalem Palestinian village of Sur Baher.

The opening comes amid heightened tensions across the region. Israeli forces have stepped up attacks on Iranian targets in neighboring Syria over the past week, after saying Tehran-backed troops targeted Israel with a missile barrage. Iranian officials rejected that accusation and are fuming over Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and five other world powers.

The U.S.-Israeli festivities to open the compound Monday precede Palestinian memorial events marking the “Nakba,” the catastrophe of their displacement at Israel’s creation in 1948. In the Gaza Strip, loudspeakers called on residents to demonstrate against the embassy move, and buses brought Gazans to the border, where they’ve been holding weekly protests against Israel since March 30. At least 50 Palestinians have been killed in the protests and hundreds injured by live fire, according to Gaza health officials.

“As the Palestinian people continue to endure 70 years of ongoing Nakba, ethnic cleansing and exile, as well as over 50 years of occupation, the U.S. administration has chosen to celebrate it by moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a statement Monday. “This infamous hostile act against international law and against the people of Palestine places the U.S. on the side of the occupying power, Israel.”

On Sunday, Israel’s Foreign Ministry hosted some 1,200 people, including Israeli politicians, members of the U.S. Congress and Jewish and evangelical Christian leaders, at a reception to celebrate the embassy move. Most European countries boycotted the event

“I call on all countries to join the U.S. and move your embassies to Jerusalem,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the crowd.

U.S. to Open Jerusalem Embassy as Palestinians Protest Move

Israeli police are is beefing up their presence around the city, with 1,000 officers tasked with providing security for the embassy opening, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Forces include anti-terrorism units, undercover officers and paramilitary border police, with special attention being paid to Arab neighborhoods near the embassy site, he said.

Ambassador David Friedman told reporters Friday that the move will help the peace process.

Slideshow: Trump Recognizes Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel

“In the long run, we’re convinced that this decision creates an opportunity and a platform to proceed with a peace process on the basis of realities rather than fantasies, and we’re fairly optimistic that this decision will ultimately create greater stability rather than less,” he said. “We remain optimistic that we will make significant progress.”

That wasn’t the view of Shaath, a Palestinian elder statesman, as he gazed up at a rock-strewn slope where gardeners had planted red, white and blue pansies. Palestinians say the U.S. move preempts decades of peace talks, which left a decision on the final status of Jerusalem for negotiations between the two sides.

Jerusalem is considered holy to three of the world’s major religions, and Palestinians have long sought to have east Jerusalem serve as the capital of an independent Palestinian state. The U.S. has said the decision to relocate the embassy doesn’t prejudge a final determination of the city’s status.

U.S. to Open Jerusalem Embassy as Palestinians Protest Move

Broken Promises

Before Trump, U.S. presidential candidates for decades had vowed they’d move the embassy, but postponed the move out of concern it would disrupt peace prospects. Moving the embassy is a requirement of a 1990s U.S. law that was regularly waived by Trump’s predecessors going back to Bill Clinton.

The Trump administration bypassed years of costly construction on a new embassy by repurposing an existing consular building. Since the compound isn’t large enough to host all the staff currently based in Tel Aviv, Friedman and other officials will commute back and forth.

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