- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

JERUSALEM — Construction of a U.S. outpost at one of Jerusalem’s most picturesque vantage points is prompting speculation that the site is being prepared for an American Embassy in the holy city.

American and Israeli officials declined to comment for diplomatic reasons, but the scale of the project suggests that it goes beyond plans to open an “American Consulate Annex,” as a large sign at the site says.

Work has progressed on the 10-acre plot for nearly five years. The site is under constant surveillance by closed-circuit TV cameras and guarded by Israeli security personnel.

The sign identifies the sponsor as the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, which is in charge of worldwide construction projects for the U.S. State Department.

A spokesman for the Jerusalem municipality, Yossi Gottesman, said the building going up at this stage will cover half of the site, leaving room for an embassy.

The U.S. now maintains two consular facilities in Jerusalem - one in the West and another in the predominantly Arab East - as well as the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Although U.S. officials regard Israel as a close ally, the United States did not recognize Jerusalem as part of the Jewish state, or as its capital, when Israel controlled the western half of the city from 1949 to 1967. The U.S. also did not recognize Israel’s annexation of the rest of the city in 1968.

Both Israelis and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital.

In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which states that “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel and that the U.S. embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem not later than May 31st, 1999.”

The legislation, adopted by a 93-5 vote in the Senate and a 347-37 vote in the House, also “urges the President to immediately begin the process of relocating the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.”

However, Presidents Clinton and Bush both maintained that the act was “advisory” in nature and said that it “impermissibly interferes with the president’s constitutional authority” to formulate foreign policy.

Both presidents then notified Congress semiannually that the resolution could not be implemented. The concern was that such a move would adversely affect peace talks and cause violent anti-U.S. demonstrations in Arab and Muslim countries.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama, caused a stir over Jerusalem without mentioning the embassy, saying the city “will remain the capital of Israel and must remain divided.”

He later backtracked by saying that U.S. policy toward the city would not change and that his earlier remarks in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had reflected “poor phrasing.”

When asked in a television interview whether he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he declined to answer.

“I think we’re going to work through this process before we make these kinds of decisions,” Mr. Obama told ABC News.

Still, the project under development suggests anticipation that a peace agreement eventually will be reached creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Israeli architect Amir Mann-Shinhar, the “design manager and co-coordinator” of the project, said the first structure will be completed early next month and that although it will be only one story, permission has been granted for another three stories to be added “in the future.”

About 4 acres of the diplomatic compound in the Arnona Quarter will house several buildings including schools and kindergartens, said Mr. Gottesman, the municipal spokesman. One acre will be used for internal roadways and public parks, he said.

Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, a spokeswoman for the consulate, said the new facility will be the only site in Jerusalem to “provide visa and American citizen services to all patrons.”

This means that hundreds of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem’s former Jordanian sector and their compatriots who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would have to cross virtually the entire Jewish part of the city to obtain American consular services.

Nabil Feidy, a Palestinian businessman, said the consular section in East Jerusalem should be kept open.

“It will be inconvenient for residents of the city’s Arab quarters to cross town to Arnona,” he said. “West Bank Palestinians also use the Nablus Road office.”

Asked when he thinks the U.S. Embassy will move to Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, “It’s just a matter of time.”

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