US to fast-track embassy’s move to Jerusalem: Pence


Wed, Jan 24, 2018 - Page 7

US Vice President Mike Pence on Monday told Israeli lawmakers that the US would put plans to move its embassy to Jerusalem on a fast track, drawing angry denunciations from Arabs who were forcibly removed from the hall during his speech before the Israeli parliament.

The US government’s plan to accelerate the move of the embassy, announced in the first address of a sitting US vice president to the Knesset, marked the highlight of Pence’s visit celebrating US President Donald Trump’s decision last month to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“Jerusalem is Israel’s capital — and, as such, President Trump has directed the State Department to begin initial preparations to move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Pence told the lawmakers, vowing that the “United States embassy will open before the end of next year.”

Pence’s speech drew protests from Palestinians, with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat saying it “has proven that the US administration is part of the problem rather than the solution.”

Shortly after Pence began speaking, several Arab lawmakers voiced their displeasure by raising signs that said: “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine,” and heckling the vice president.

They were forcibly removed from the plenum.

Despite the pandemonium, Pence expressed hope in an interview after the speech that the Palestinians would re-enter negotiations.

“Our message to President [Mahmoud] Abbas and the Palestinian Authority is: The door’s open. The door’s open. President Trump is absolutely committed to doing everything the United States can to achieve a peace agreement that brings an end to decades of conflict,” Pence said.

The embassy is to be opened in an existing US facility that would be “retrofitted” to meet safety and security requirements, US Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein told reporters in Washington.

He said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had yet to sign off on the safety plan for the new facility, but would do so in the coming weeks.

The most likely location is in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, in a modern building that handles US consular affairs such as issuing passports, birth certificates and travel visas, said a US official, who was not authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The US consul-general works out of another Jerusalem facility that handles political affairs and diplomatic functions.

The retrofitted building had been originally envisioned as an interim plan that would allow Trump to quickly fulfill his vow to move the embassy.

Yet it was unclear after Pence’s speech whether Trump still intended to break ground later on a new embassy elsewhere in Jerusalem or to use the retrofitted one permanently.

“We expect that to be the embassy,” Goldstein said of the facility that is to open next year. “We do not have a plan at current to build a new embassy.”

Pence said the administration was “exploring a range of options” on where to locate the embassy.

The vice president was preceded in the Knesset by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lavished his guest with praise and gratitude.

It was part of an exceptionally warm welcome for Pence in Israel, which has been overjoyed by Trump’s pivot on Jerusalem, but the move has infuriated the Palestinians and upset Washington’s Arab allies.