By Yara Bayoumy
WASHINGTON - The United States said on Friday it will open its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem in May, a move from Tel Aviv that reverses decades of U.S. policy and is bound to trouble U.S. allies who have already objected.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced last December that the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating even Washington’s Arab allies and dismaying Palestinians who want the eastern part of the city as their capital.
No other country has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Trump’s decision has sown discord between the United States and the European Union over Middle East peace efforts.
“We are excited about taking this historic step, and look forward with anticipation to the May opening,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, noting that it will coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary.
The embassy in Jerusalem will be gradually expanded in existing consular facilities in the Arnona neighborhood, while the search for a permanent site has already begun for what Nauert called a “longer-term undertaking.”
The interim embassy will have office space for the ambassador and a small staff and, by the end of 2019, a new embassy annex on the Arnona compound will be opened, Nauert said in a statement.
The consulate in East Jerusalem will continue to serve Palestinians, and for security reasons U.S. Ambassador David Friedman will continue living in the residence in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, and commute to the relocated embassy, another official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
A May opening is earlier than expected - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told the Israeli parliament last month that the move would take place by the end of 2019.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Friday’s U.S. announcement as “a great day for the people of Israel”.
Palestinians reacted to the news with anger.
“This is an unacceptable step. Any unilateral move will not give legitimacy to anyone and will be an obstacle to any effort to create peace in the region,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, who is in the United States until Saturday.
The status of Jerusalem — home to sites holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions — has been one of the thorniest issues in long-running Mideast peace efforts.
In a speech on Friday to a gathering of conservatives in suburban Washington, Trump recalled his controversial decision, saying he withstood enormous pressure to make the move.
“I put the word out that I may do it. I was hit by more countries and more pressure and more people calling, begging me ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it,'” Trump said.
“I said we have to do it. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do, we have to do it. And I did it.”
Clashes erupted in Gaza and the West Bank earlier on Friday, in a weekly protest against Trump’s stance on Jerusalem.
Palestinian health officials have said at least 20 Palestinians, most of them in Gaza, have been killed in protests against Trump’s decision since he announced it on December 6.
Jerusalem is a city that is sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and each religion has sites of great significance there. Jerusalem has been fought over for millennia by its inhabitants, and by regional powers and invaders including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans, early Muslim rulers, Crusaders, Ottomans, the British Empire, and by the modern states of Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Israel’s government regards Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the country, although that is not recognized internationally. Palestinians feel equally strongly, saying that East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future Palestinian state. The city has different names. Jews call it Jerusalem, or Yerushalayim, and Arabs call it Al-Quds, which means “The Holy”.
But the city’s significance goes further.
At the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City is the hill known to Jews across the world as Har ha-Bayit, or Temple Mount, and to Muslims internationally as al-Haram al-Sharif, or The Noble Sanctuary. It was home to the Jewish temples of antiquity but all that remains of them above ground is a restraining wall for the foundations built by Herod the Great. Known as the Western Wall, this is a sacred place of prayer for Jews.
Within yards of the wall, and overlooking it, are two Muslim holy places, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was built in the 8th century. Muslims regard the site as the third holiest in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. The city is also an important pilgrimage site for Christians, who revere it as the place where they believe that Jesus Christ preached, died and was resurrected.
WHAT IS THE CITY‘S MODERN HISTORY AND STATUS?
In 1947, the United Nations General Assembly decided that the then British-ruled Palestine should be partitioned into an Arab state and a Jewish state. But it recognized that Jerusalem had special status and proposed international rule for the city, along with nearby Bethlehem, as a ‘corpus separatum’ to be administered by the United Nations.
That never happened. When British rule ended in 1948, Jordanian forces occupied the Old City and Arab East Jerusalem. Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally.
In 1980 the Israeli parliament passed a law declaring the “complete and united” city of Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. But the United Nations regards East Jerusalem as occupied, and the city’s status as disputed until resolved by negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The King of Jordan retains a role in ensuring the upkeep of the Muslim holy places.
DOES ANY OTHER COUNTRY HAVE AN EMBASSY IN JERUSALEM?
Other countries have had embassies in Jerusalem in the past, but moved them out of the city some years ago. In December Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales, said that his country will move its embassy from Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said several countries were considering following the U.S. lead, but he declined to identify them.
Also in December, 128 countries voted in a non-binding U.N. General Assembly resolution calling on the U.S. to drop its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Nine voted against, 35 abstained and 21 did not cast a vote.
WHAT IS LIKELY TO HAPPEN NEXT? HAS JERUSALEM BEEN A FLASHPOINT BEFORE?
Since the announcement there has been tension, with Palestinian protests in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.
Although clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces have not been on the scale of the first and second Palestinian intifadas in 1987-1993 and 2000-2005, violence has erupted before over matters of sovereignty and religion.
In 2000, the Israeli politician Ariel Sharon, then opposition leader, led a group of Israeli lawmakers onto the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif complex. Palestinians protested, and violent clashes quickly escalated into the second Palestinian uprising, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
Deadly confrontations also took place last July after Israel installed metal detectors at the entrance to the complex following the killing of two Israeli policemen there by Arab-Israeli gunmen.
Arab leaders across the Middle East have warned that a unilateral U.S move could lead to turmoil, and hamper U.S. efforts to restart long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.