U.S. embassy in Jerusalem will open far earlier than expected

Geopolitical disaster coming to you circa 2019.

CREDIT: Haim Zach/GPO via Getty Images
CREDIT: Haim Zach/GPO via Getty Images

The U.S. embassy in Israel will open in Jerusalem by 2019, accelerating President Trump’s inflammatory decision to declare the city the nation’s capital and shift the embassy’s location from Tel Aviv.

Vice President Mike Pence made the announcement while speaking before the Knesset on Monday. The vice president is currently on a Middle East tour, with previous stops in Jordan and Egypt, where he has faced tension following the Trump administration’s recent policy decisions. Seemingly undaunted, Pence announced the projected embassy move date before Israeli lawmakers, indicating the White House has no plans to back down.

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“In the weeks ahead, our administration will advance its plan to open the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem — and the embassy will open next year,” Pence said. “Our president made his decision in the best interests of the United States — but he also made it clear that we believe this decision is in the best interests of peace.”

“By finally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the United States has chosen fact over fiction — and fact is the only true foundation for a just and lasting peace,” he continued.

Trump declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel in December, sparking protests and censure. Israel has occupied East Jerusalem since 1967, and many Palestinians consider the area to be the future capital of a Palestinian state. The U.S. decision led to outrage across the occupied territories, as well as in neighboring countries. The United Nations formally voted to reject the announcement a short time later, earning a sharp rebuke from U.S. officials, including ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, who threatened repercussions for those breaking with the United States.

So far, those consequences are coming fast. The United States has already targeted funding pledged to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), slashing the organization’s funds and leaving Palestinian refugees without a major source of aid. Now, the administration seems set to massively accelerate plans to relocate the embassy, moving up the date from an unstated time in the distant future to next year.

That announcement isn’t likely to be well-received throughout the region. Pence has already faced stern criticism on his trip from Israel’s neighbors. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi scolded the U.S. position on Jerusalem and pushed for reopening dialogue with Palestinians. While in Jordan, Pence told reporters that he and King Abdullah II had “agreed to disagree” on the issue of Jerusalem, with the king asking the United States to “rebuild trust and confidence” in the future of a two-state solution and peace talks. Jordan strongly opposes moving the U.S. embassy ahead of reopening talks, meaning Pence’s announcement in Israel could complicate U.S.-Jordan relations.

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Pence himself received a mixed reception in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally of Trump, lauded the vice president’s visit, as have many of the country’s right-wing politicians. Others offered a more suspicious reaction. Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat, argued that Pence, an evangelical Christian, loves Israel for religious reasons which may not be well-received by Jews.

“He loves the Jewish people because it has a purpose in history, and he loves Israel because it serves temporarily as the home of the Jewish people before they convert to Christianity after Armageddon,” Pinkas wrote for Yediot Aharonot.

Palestinians and Arab Israelis have protested Pence’s visit, with even Knesset members making their dissent clear. As Pence began speaking on Monday, Israeli Arab lawmakers held up signs proclaiming Jerusalem the capital of Palestine before they were escorted out by security.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab Joint List, defended his party’s right to boycott and protest the visit.

“Proud to lead the Joint List in strong, legitimate protest, against the Trump-Netanyahu regime’s exaltation of racism and hatred, who speak of peace solely as lip service,” Odeh wrote. “Our protest today in the plenum is in honor of all who oppose the occupation and dream of peace.”

Arab Christian leaders have said they will not meet with the vice president, nor will Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who snubbed Pence before flying to Brussels to meet with E.U. foreign ministers. He is expected to encourage increased mediation from E.U. countries in addition to recognition of a Palestinian state along pre-1967 war lines.