Embassy opens in Jerusalem; U.S. praises move while allies denounce it

Posted: May 15, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech Monday at the opening ceremony for the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM -- An American delegation including White House officials and major GOP donors officially opened the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, handing Israel a long-sought victory but touching off more clashes with protesting Palestinians.

The ceremony -- attended by President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka -- capped Trump's pledge to shift the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to offer diplomatic recognition to Israel's claim of Jerusalem as its capital.

But the backdrop underscored the repercussions unleashed by the decision.

European allies offered more denunciations of the move as a serious blow to peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, who also view part of Jerusalem as the capital for a possible future state.

On the Gaza Strip border, deadly confrontations broke out Monday in what was the bloodiest day during a wave of Palestinian protests against Israel's blockade of the area.

The Arab League called an emergency meeting to discuss the "illegal" U.S. Embassy shift, and the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation called the move an "attack on the historical, legal, natural and national rights of the Palestinian people."

Turkey said it was recalling its ambassador to the United States over the embassy move, saying it "disregarded the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people" and would "not serve peace, security and stability in the region." Turkey also recalled its ambassador to Israel after what it called a "massacre" of Palestinians on the Gaza border.

South Africa, a fervent supporter of the Palestinians, also recalled its ambassador for consultations, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

Even as the embassy ceremony unfolded, the call for afternoon prayers from a mosque in mostly Arab East Jerusalem could be heard.

For many Israelis, the official move of the embassy is a cause for celebration even though the shift was mostly symbolic -- adding a new embassy plaque to the existing U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.

Most countries say their embassies will remain in Tel Aviv until Israelis and Palestinians reach some sort of peace agreement.

"This is a hostile act against international law and against the people of Palestine," said Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, speaking of the embassy move. "It places the U.S. on the side of the occupying power."

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, started the proceedings by recalling the declaration of the state of Israel by then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion 70 years ago.

"Seventy years later, the United States is taking the next step of moving the embassy to Jerusalem," he said. "Again the United States leads the way in taking this step."

In a recorded video message, Trump noted Israel's right "to determine its own capital" and pledged U.S. support for peace efforts and the status quo agreements for sites holy to different faiths. Trump noted the Arabic name for the Temple Mount -- Haram al-Sharif -- which is venerated in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

But Trump did not directly address Palestinians' grievances over the embassy move or a boycott of the Trump administration by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"May there be peace," Trump said in the video message to the crowd, which included Ivanka Trump; Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and a host of political, religious and communal leaders.

"A great day for Israel," Trump wrote earlier in a tweet.

Present at the event were some top Republican backers, including GOP donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. "This is an important event for all Jews," Adelson said.

Trump has boasted of how he has managed to keep the costs down for the embassy move. In an apparent nod to the bottom line, only pretzels and water were served to some 800 guests at the event.

The embassy operations, for the moment, will be mostly a work in progress inside the consulate.

The first phase involves shifting just the ambassador and core staff to Jerusalem -- less than a half-dozen people -- according to a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plans.

That first move, including building modifications and additional security, cost less than $400,000, another U.S. official said. The facility will still conduct consular functions -- documents, passports and other services for U.S. citizens -- but will also be the official nerve center for the embassy and its diplomatic duties.

Even the current location is sensitive, located partially in an area designated "no man's land" in a 1949 armistice agreement. The United Nations considers that land to be occupied territory, though the U.S. says that in practice the area has been in continuous Israeli use since 1949.

Speaking at the event, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a "glorious day."

"Remember this moment; this is history," he said. "President Trump, by recognizing history, you have made history."

Later, he tweeted a photograph of himself and his wife, Sara, with Ivanka Trump and Kushner and the new plaque.

"What a great day for the great American-Israeli alliance," he wrote.

Palestinians view it as a betrayal of Washington's decades-old role as a potential broker for a peace deal with Israel.

"Outside of the U.S. and a few other countries, most of the world is against this move," said Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab faction in Israel's parliament. Despite being invited to the opening ceremony, he objected by boycotting the event.

"Most want to see peace created along the lines that existed in 1967," he said. "This is a one-sided move that strengthens occupation and moves us further from peace."

Just a few blocks from the site, scuffles broke out between Israeli forces and protesters, including Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Israeli-Arab members of Israel's parliament. Fourteen people were arrested, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Odeh drew a direct line between the embassy opening and the deaths in Gaza.

"The opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem and its grand ceremony is part of the same policy that has claimed the lives of dozens of Gazans," he said. "Today, there is nothing to celebrate. The opening of the embassy is yet another provocative step that signals the destruction of the notion of peace."

PRAISE FROM GOP

Even as it sparked deadly protests in the Mideast, President Trump's decision to relocate the embassy united a cross-section of the GOP. It injected new energy into the evangelical movement, which has long wanted the embassy moved because of the deep religious significance of the area. And it pleased big donors and allowed Trump to claim another campaign promise kept.

"Above all else, we've shown that the United States of America will do what's right. And so we have," Kushner, Trump's top Mideast adviser, declared at the event.

Top officials with the Republican National Committee, along with a delegation of four Republican senators, 10 Republican congressmen and one Republican governor, cheered Kushner from the gallery. The RNC's new finance chairman, Tom Ricketts, attended. Adelson watched from the front row minutes earlier as Ivanka Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin unveiled the embassy's new facade.

"I did it for my constituents -- their love and affection for the people of Israel," said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who organized the U.S. delegation's visit. He said he was also pleased by the Adelson family's reaction.

"Just to see their joy was a moment of happiness for me," Wilson said of Adelson, who in recent days donated $30 million to a super PAC focused on helping the House GOP retain its majority this fall.

Not a single elected Democrat attended the celebration in Israel. Most were silent Monday as the ceremony unfolded on television. A few, including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York, issued written statements of support.

"Every nation should have the right to choose its capital. I sponsored legislation to do this two decades ago, and I applaud President Trump for doing it," the top Senate Democrat said in a rare moment of agreement with the Republican president.

Wilson said he personally invited "a significant number" of Democrats to attend the festivities in person, but many cited scheduling conflicts.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the deadly protests in Gaza "just heartbreaking." She called on the administration to state its "unequivocal support" for a two-state solution and restart negotiations.

"The location of the embassy is a final-status issue that should have been resolved as part of peace negotiations where both sides benefit, not just one side," Feinstein said.

Those who arrived to celebrate the opening of the embassy dismissed claims that the move undermines the chances for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Traveling with the official delegation, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that now is the "right time" to move the embassy.

"It's been U.S. policy since 1995, and if you have a problem, then you need to take it up with God," said Graham, referring to legislation approved by Congress. The legislation included a waiver allowing presidents to delay the move by six months at a time, which had been used by successive presidents until now.

"In a fractured Middle East, now is the time for America to have Israel's back," said Graham. "If there ever are two states, then maybe the Palestinians will make East Jerusalem their capital. Only time will tell."

Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, asserted that moving the embassy from Tel Aviv is "a recognition of reality" that ends the United States and Israel "operating on a completely different wavelength."

"Recognizing reality always enhances the chances for peace," Bolton added.

Information for this article was contributed by Ruth Eglash, Brian Murphy and Sufian Taha of The Washington Post; and by Steve Peoples, Aron Heller, Anne Flaherty, Catherine Lucey, Zeke Miller, Josh Lederman, Fares Akram, Josef Federman, Ilan Ben Zion, Mohammed Daraghmeh and Karin Laub of The Associated Press.

A Section on 05/15/2018