When the U.S. Department of State says that it is moving its Embassy to the State of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it’s unlikely to become anything more than a superficial, perfunctory presence. Most embassy services will likely remain in Tel Aviv, and most employees will also remain there. Furthermore, the U.S. State Department is unlikely to go ahead and actually build the facilities for an embassy although it may acquire land. (Land that was scouted out for an embassy campus has been ruled out because it was too small to be safe. See my post “Land once earmarked for the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.”)
While the U.S. Embassy to Israel only goes back to the founding of the state in 1948, the city of Jerusalem has had its own Consulate General that was established in 1844 as an American diplomatic presence in the Holy City. This diplomatic mission was elevated to the status of Consulate General in 1928 during the period when Britain was mandated by the League of Nations to administer the lands of Palestine. At that time, the city of Jerusalem was undivided. The State Department located the Consulate General on Agron Street, slightly more than one half mile (walking along city streets) (about 850 meters) from the walled city’s Jaffa Gate.
At the end of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, an annex to the Consulate General was housed in as neutral an address as possible, neutral regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its location was just east of the Jordan-Israel Armistice line near the only checkpoint between Israel and the West bank, the crossing at the Mandelbaum Gate. This location of the annex to the Consulate General is a short walk to the Old City’s Damascus Gate, about one-third mile (530m).
The annex of the Consulate General moved to new, expanded facilities in 2010, a six-acre (24 dunam) campus near the Arnona neighborhood, again in as neutral a location as possible. This campus straddles the western armistice line, thereby placing the Consulate annex on what had partly been no man’s land until 1967.
“The Consulate General represents the United States in Arab Jerusalem [sic], the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip as an independent mission.” Its role has become, in the words of the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Consulate General, “… the public diplomacy arm of the U.S. Consulate, [with] primary goals … to support the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis….” (“Public Affairs Section | U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem.”)
We’ve seen how the United States has maintained a Consulate General to Jerusalem for 170 years. It has answered directly to the State Department as an independent mission but not to an embassy as most consulates do. With one quick decision of President Trump’s, the annex of the Consulate General will begin to function as an embassy. Consular services to Jerusalem will resort to the cramped, outdated facility on Agron Street. About 580 staffers now work in consular services in the annex whereas about 960 staffers work in Tel Aviv (Taylor).
President Donald Trump has reversed a foreign policy in the region that dates back to 1948. What has the U.S. Department of State known about a new embassy in Jerusalem? Probably next to nothing until President Trump made his February determination known. Evidence of this lies in how the Consulate General has yet to formulate solicitations for adaptations of existing offices for new uses. (See “Request for Quotes”.)
How much did Secretary of State Rex Tillerson know about a move in upcoming May?
As recently as last December, “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to concede that the move [of the Embassy] won’t be easy and that the process of finding a new plot of land would begin immediately. ‘Obviously, there’s a lot of planning that goes into it,’ Tillerson [former CEO of ExxonMobil] told reporters…. ‘It’s going to take some time.’”
A rash change during the Trump administration is not unexpected, though. The Washington Post’s chief correspondent Dan Balz notes, “[President Trump] pledged not to be predictable or conventional. He demonstrated that he has no fixed ideology or conviction.”
Trump has shown repeatedly he is prepared to ignore orthodoxy and question policies that other administrations have accepted as constants. (Balz. “Trump promised …”)
I believe that the May date will be marked by ceremony. Political implications will arrive and, subsequently, not go away. Moving the embassy establishes another “fact on the ground” which will frustrate Palestinian desires to include eastern Jerusalem in a Palestinian state.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was just relieved of his post as I was writing this essay. He is beginning to tie up loose ends and will leave the State Department on March 31, 2018. He reportedly alienated State Department colleagues during his tenure as being a poor advocate for the State Department. His replacement, Mike Pompeo (if confirmed), is expected to repair damage. Nonetheless, career diplomats may be reluctant to accept Pompeo’s thought process, a process “very similar” to President Trump’s – a disdain for diplomacy (DeYoung. “Pompeo will face …”).
I’ve seen no evidence that moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is diplomatic – certainly not toward Palestinians and other Arabs.
Sources and References
Associated Press. “Guatemala’s Israel embassy to move to Jerusalem in mid-May.” The Washington Post, The Americas, March 5, 2018. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
Balz, Dan. “Trump promised this kind of presidency — unpredictable, ad hoc and impulsive.” The Washington Post, Politics • Perspective, March 10, 2018. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
DeYoung, Karen and John Hudson. “Pompeo will face a host of foreign policy challenges if confirmed as secretary of state.” The Washington Post, National Security, March 13, 2018. Retrieved March 13, 2018, 8:30 PM CDT.
Ignatius, David. “Tillerson’s departure removes another check on an impulsive Trump.” The Washington Post, Post Partisan • Opinion, March 13, 2018. Retrieved March 13, 2018, 6:14 PM CDT.
Kontorovich, Eugene. “What Trump not signing a Jerusalem embassy waiver would really mean.” The Washington Post, The Volokh Conspiracy • Opinion, May 30, 2017.
Mann, Amir and Ami Shinar, architects & planners. “U.S. Consulate General Annex, Jerusalem.” Web page, retrieved March 13, 2018.
Nauert, Heather, U.S. State Department Spokesperson. “Opening of U.S. Embassy Jerusalem.” Press Statement. Washington, D.C., February 23, 2018. Retrieved March 8, 2018.
Rubin, Jennifer. “Tillerson is put out of his misery.” The Washington Post, Right Turn • Opinion, March 13, 2018. Retrieved March 8, 2018, 5:55 PM CDT.
Taylor, Adam. “Where would a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem actually go?” The Washington Post, WorldViews • Analysis, December 7, 2017. Retrieved March 2018.
Tillerson, Rex W., U.S. Secretary of State. “Remarks in Press Briefing Room.” Remarks. Washington, D.C., March 13, 2018. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
“U.S. Consulate General Jerusalem.” Web Page, retrieved March 13, 2018.