President Trump announced Wednesday that the United States formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that he intends to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The decision has numerous important symbolic implications for the Middle East peace process.
But in a city where land rights are often controversial, moving the embassy to Jerusalem is also a practical problem, too: Where exactly would this new embassy go? Trump, a real estate mogul-turned-world leader, may soon discover that finding a location for a new embassy is no easy task. Although the White House has suggested the embassy could be moved within three to four years, some think that that time frame is unrealistic.
“That’s a very optimistic estimate,” said Daniel Shapiro, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama. Shapiro, who is now senior fellow with the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and has advocated for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel under certain circumstances, said he suspects that the move would take five to 10 years.
In theory, there is land in Jerusalem set aside for a new U.S. Embassy. On President Ronald Reagan’s last day in office in 1989, then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel William Brown signed a contract for a patch of land in West Jerusalem for $1 a year on a 99-year lease. This space was later zoned for “diplomatic purposes” by the Israeli government with the intention of building a U.S. Embassy there.
Nowadays, this land sits in an increasingly desirable part of Jerusalem on the edge of the Talpiot neighborhood by Baka. “It’s a great area,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was an adviser to Secretary of State John F. Kerry on the Middle East peace process. “There’s been a lot of apartment buildings built around there in anticipation of a U.S. Embassy.”
The earmarked land still sits uninhabited and forlorn. A reporter from the Times of Israel described seeing “pieces of an old shoe, broken Heineken bottles, the rusty innersprings of an old mattress that somebody forgot here years ago,” when he visited last year. And despite the Trump administration’s decision to move the embassy, this land may be unlikely to see a brighter future.re
Although it was initially hoped during the 1990s that a U.S. Embassy could sit here, after the al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, new safety standards were put in place that required embassies to be set back 100 feet from any adjacent roads due to the risk of car bombs and other attacks. “With the new rules, that land is not big enough,” Shapiro said. For context, the space in Talpiot is seven to 14 acres, according to different sources, while the new U.S. Embassy in Lebanon sits on 43 acres.
There is another potential option: The United States could use a building it already has in Jerusalem. The State Department operates a number of consulate buildings in Jerusalem that provide services to the city as well as the Palestinian territories and which could theoretically be repurposed as an embassy. The oldest is the U.S. Consulate General building, built in 1912, which sits at 18 Agron Rd., close to Jerusalem’s Old City.