WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump said Friday he may travel to Israel next month to open the new US embassy in Jerusalem after ordering the move in the face of widespread Palestinian anger.
The Trump administration’s announcement in February that it would shift the American embassy from Tel Aviv deepened anger across the Arab world, particularly among Palestinians who see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Trump had already broken with decades of US policy in December to announce Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, drawing near-global condemnation and sparking days of unrest in the Palestinian territories.
Speaking in the White House, Trump said he had no regrets about the decision as he described nixing a $1 billion, 10-year plan to construct a brand new embassy in favor of a $300,000 to $400,000 makeover of part of an existing US consulate.
“I may go. I’m very proud of it,” Trump told reporters.
“It is going to be beautiful. And it will be somewhat temporary, but it could be for many years,” he said at a joint press conference with German leader Angela Merkel.
While Israel regards Jerusalem as its “undisputed and undivided” capital, Palestinians say its status should only form part of a final peace agreement and the embassy move will wreck a two-state solution to the decades-old Middle East conflict.
Palestinians also particularly object to the decision to open the embassy to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 — a date that they call the Naqba, or “day of catastrophe.”
Until now, the US embassy has been located in Tel Aviv with a separate consulate general located in Jerusalem that represents US interests in the Palestinian territories.
While previous US presidents had run for election promising to move the embassy to Jerusalem, none ever pursued the relocation once in office.
While Trump’s critics have warned that the embassy move will undermine Washington’s ability to act as a mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians in negotiating any final peace agreement, Trump has brushed such talk aside.
“The embassy in Jerusalem has been promised for many, many years by presidents,” Trump said in Friday’s press conference.
“They all made campaign promises and they never had the courage to carry it out. I carried it out.”
– ‘Never got to Trump’ –
While the United States will eventually move into a purpose-built embassy, its diplomats will initially operate out of the consulate in Jerusalem which is currently being upgraded.
Trump said he had almost signed off on a proposal to build a new $1 billion embassy but baulked when he considered the cost.
“The papers were put before me to sign an application for more than $1 billion to build an embassy,” said Trump.
“I had my name half signed, then I noticed the figure and I didn’t. I never got to the word ‘Trump’. I had ‘Donald’ signed but I never got to the word ‘Trump’.”
The president said he then called the US ambassador in Israel, David Friedman, who said the cost of updating the consulate would only be $150,000.
“He said I can build it for $150,000 — the embassy. We have a building, we have the site. We already own the site, we own the building.
“I can take a corner of the building and for $150,000, we can fix it up, make it beautiful, open our embassy. Instead of in 10 years from now we can open it up in three months.
“And that’s what we did. But I said, ‘David, let’s not go from $1 billion to $150,000. Let’s go to $300,000, $400,000.’ That’s what we did. We will take a piece of the building. It is going to be beautiful. And it will be somewhat temporary but it could be for many years.
“That’s the way government works. They were going to spend $1 billion and we’re going to spend much less than $500,000.”
While the embassy move has infuriated the Palestinians, it delighted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has said Trump will be forever regarded as a hero in the Jewish state’s history books.