US President Donald Trump will likely decide to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the head of a Congressional fact-finding mission into a possible relocation said on Sunday.
The small delegation, headed by Representative Ron DeSantis of Florida, the only congressman on the trip, visited three possible locations in Jerusalem, and determined that the main US consulate building on 14 David Flusser Street, in the capital’s Arnona neighborhood, appears best suited to house the American embassy.
“I think it’s going to happen,” said DeSantis, who chairs the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee for National Security, which is in charge of security arrangements for US diplomatic missions across the globe. “To see this happen 50 years after the liberation of Jerusalem is going to be exciting for a lot of people in the US, and I know it’s going to be very exciting for a lot of Israelis here in Jerusalem.”
DeSantis cited the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which calls for the US Embassy to be moved to Jerusalem but included a waiver to delay the measure for security reasons. So far, all presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — have signed the waiver every six months. The current waiver will expire at the end of May, forcing Trump to decide if he will extend it or comply with the congressional order.
Trump, who during his campaign vowed to move the embassy and, according to reports was willing to do it on his first day in office, has recently backtracked, saying he is still studying the matter.
“He’s in a position where he’s either going to follow his campaign promise or he’ll have to actually have to sign this waiver,” DeSantis said during a press conference in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
“Knowing the president — he’s been a man of his word — I don’t think that he’s going to, in the same month that people here in Jerusalem are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem Day, sign the waiver. I would bet that he would not do that and that he would announce that the embassy is going to be moving.”
This summer, Israelis mark the jubilee of the Six Day War, during which Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Israel later extended sovereignty to East Jerusalem, unifying the city in a move largely unrecognized by the international community, including the US.
During his 24-hour stay in Israel, DeSantis met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and several Knesset members. He was also scheduled to sit down with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat later on Sunday.
DeSantis did not meet with any Palestinian officials during Sunday’s whirlwind trip, but said he met with stakeholders in the Arab world recently in Washington, including Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Many in the international community have warned against moving the embassy, a move that would be seen as de facto recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. On Saturday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement warned that transferring the embassy “will not only explode the situation in Palestine but the whole … region,” according to the Palestinian Ma’an news outlet.
‘No other fish in the fryer’
Speaking in Jerusalem, DeSantis said Trump may not have announced the embassy move on Day 1 of his presidency because he was briefed on the waiver and wanted to first have his secretary of state and his ambassador to Israel in place, “so he could handle this with his own folks.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was confirmed last month; his envoy pick David Friedman is likely to be approved by the Senate later this week.
“There is something to be said for doing it on Day 1, because you start with a splash, and that would probably been my advice going in,” the 38-year-old Republican from Jacksonville, Florida, said. “But we are where we are. If it ends up getting done in May, that would still be a very positive development.”
He acknowledged hearing reports claiming that Israeli officials told the administration not to rush the embassy move, but said he found no evidence of this. “I expected to maybe encounter some of that; I thought someone would say, behind the scenes, ‘Look, we support this, but we have [other] fish in the fryer.’ But I didn’t encounter any of that. So those reports may or may not have been accurate. But there’s no hesitancy from the folks that I spoke with since I’ve been here.”
‘There’s is no other country in the world where we do not locate the embassy in that country’s chosen capital city’
DeSantis was originally supposed to be joined by fellow Congressman Dennis Ross, no relation to the longtime US peace negotiator, but eventually came alone.
Thus the “official congressional delegation” included only himself and his staff.
He is expected to report his findings to Congress and the administration.
The congressman, who is also a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, stressed that he did not come to Jerusalem at the president’s behest, but added that he will “communicate what we found and what we’ve seen” to the White House.
In addition to the consular section on David Flusser Street, DeSantis also visited the US Consulate’s branch on Agron Street (where it has owned a building since 1912) and an empty plot of land on the corner of Hebron Road and Daniel Yanovsky Street in the capital’s Talpiot neighborhood.
This plot, located on the site of the former Allenby Barracks, has been leased by the US government for the purposes of housing an embassy since 1989, but may be most controversial due to its disputed ownership.
The Consular Section in Arnona, which straddles the Green Line between East and West Jerusalem, is adjacent to a building known as the Diplomat Hotel, recently bought by the US in a bid to expand.
But it currently houses new immigrants, and Israeli authorities reportedly say that several years are needed to vacate the building. In contrast, DeSantis said the facility “is very well guarded” and appears “the most ready building to [host] an embassy, but that is obviously something that the president and his administration will have to decide upon.”
The embassy is currently housed in a heavily fortified building near Tel Aviv’s beachside promenade.
Hailing the expected embassy relocation as a “reset” in US-Israel ties after eight tense years, DeSantis dismissed the prospect of violence erupting. I can’t predict what would happen,” he said. “If you look at the benefits of moving it, they outweigh the risks.”
He listed recognizing the Jewish connection to Israel, Trump being seen keeping his campaign promises, and sending a message to the international community as reasons for going ahead with the move.
“There’s is no other country in the world where we do not locate the embassy in that country’s chosen capital city,” he said.