US Embassy move: ‘A great day for Israel’

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu at the opening ceremony of the new US Embassy in Jerusalem. Photo: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

AFTER years of Israeli campaigning and complaining, the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem on Monday, in what Israel’s President lauded as a “brave step”.

Israeli politicians competed with each other to come up with the most enthusiastic words to thank Donald Trump for breaking a taboo of the international community, which mostly refuses to recognise Jerusalem as capital.

“By taking the bold step of moving the US Embassy to its rightful place in Jerusalem, President Trump is helping us make Jerusalem great again,” said Nir Barkat, major of Jerusalem, at a reception for Trump aides.

As The AJN went to press, Jerusalem officials were preparing to repeat the celebrations, on a smaller scale, for the opening of a Jerusalem embassy for Guatemala, which has followed America from Tel Aviv.

Celebrations for the American relocation dominated several days in Israel, with various related events. One of them, on Sunday, was a Foreign Ministry reception for foreign ambassadors, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged them to follow suit. Most ambassadors, including Chris Cannan of Australia, didn’t attend.

The actual dedication of the US embassy was a grand event, attended by around 800 people, including Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a donor to Trump’s campaign and a big Netanyahu fan.

A message from Trump was beamed onto a large screen, while his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, a senior Trump adviser, were part of the US delegation on the ground. The Jewish couple’s broad smiles appeared to reflect personal joy at the embassy relocation – and also the popularity of the move domestically.

Trump called Jerusalem the “capital of the Jewish people ­established in ancient times”, and presented his decision as the logical next step of the US-Israel relationship. “Exactly 70 years ago the United States, under Harry Truman, became the first nation to recognise the State of Israel,” he noted, but said that “for years we failed to acknowledge the ­obvious”.

He declared, “Israel is a sovereign nation with the right, like every other sovereign nation, to determine its own capital. Yet for many years we failed to acknowledge the obvious, the plain reality that Israel’s capital is Jerusalem.
He added, “Today we follow through on this recognition and open our embassy in the historic and sacred land of Jerusalem.”

Netanyahu, standing in front of the US seal that Ivanka Trump had just unveiled, also invoked history, presenting Trump as giving the rightful status to a city of ancient importance.”
“What a glorious day – remember this moment,” he said to applause and whistles, stabbing his finger on the lectern for emphasis. “This is history. President Trump, by recognising history, you have made history. All of us are deeply moved. All of us are deeply grateful.”

He then recited the shehecheyanu blessing said on new things and events. As well as this and other Jewish religious elements at the ceremony – which even included an informal mincha prayer service before the official start – there was also a Christian aspect. Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor, recited an opening prayer that invoked Jesus, and televangelist John C. Hagee gave a closing benediction.

There was some criticism of these pastor picks, even from inside the Republican party, as despite their enthusiasm for Israel some of their attitudes towards Jews have caused controversy. Jeffress has been quoted as saying that “you can’t be saved being a Jew”, and Hagee once gave a sermon that was widely interpreted as suggesting that Hitler had been sent by God as part of a divine plan.

But debate about the suitability of these figures mainly stayed in America, with Israelis determined to get on with the festivities. The unfolding Palestinian-Israeli clashes that were taking place, especially on the Gaza border, were also hardly mentioned during the event, apart from Kushner lambasting protesters as “part of the problem”. But Kushner, Trump, Netanyahu and Rivlin all tried to counter the argument that moving the embassy made violence inevitable.

Netanyahu said: “My friends, this is a great day for Israel. It’s a great day for America. It’s a great day for our fantastic partnership. But I believe it’s also a great day for peace.” His argument was that the centrality of Jerusalem to Israel is obvious and “you can only build peace on truth”.

Trump stressed, “The United States remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement,” and Rivlin said: “Jerusalem is a microcosm of our ability, Jews and Arabs, to live together. The unity of Jerusalem is also seen in that all living in the city are equal.”

A few hours after the Jerusalem ceremony Israel’s opposition leader Isaac Herzog made a similar argument. In Israeli politics, only the Arab-dominated Joint List and the small left-wing faction Meretz opposed the embassy opening, and Herzog’s Zionist Union was firmly in favour.

“Jerusalem should become a centre for regional peace and home to hope,” Herzog said. “It seems hallucinatory but, precisely today, I say it’s the opposite. This day where we inaugurate the US Embassy in Jerusalem proves how possible everything is.”

Some Israeli peace activists disagreed. According to Peace Now, the embassy move was “a political stunt that fulfils a campaign promise for Donald Trump at the cost of future reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians”. Peace Now also called it a “boon to extremists on both sides”.

Trump’s decision was “a transparent move to pander to evangelical Christians in his political base”, and “it also satisfied the demands of conservative Jewish donors”, said Peace Now. The organisation suggested it is “not surprising” that the Palestinian leadership has frozen relations with the US administration, “bringing the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process to a screeching halt”.

There was strong condemnation of the embassy move internationally – as expected given that back in December 128 countries voted for a UN resolution against US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital. Criticism now came from France, Ireland, Holland, Turkey and other countries.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas claimed that America has given the Palestinians a “slap”. He said: “What we saw in Jerusalem today was not the opening of an embassy, but the opening of an American settlement outpost. Before we had settlement outposts with American help, but today we have an American settlement outpost in East Jerusalem.”

Shortly after Abbas’ remarks, it emerged that the Palestinian envoy to Washington had been recalled.

NATHAN JEFFAY