- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2019

JERUSALEM — America’s ambassador to Israel says slow but steady progress is being made toward putting down a permanent U.S. diplomatic footprint in this city in the approach to the first anniversary of President Trump’s historic but divisive move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv.

Ambassador David M. Friedman, who has overseen the operation since the embassy was dedicated at a hillside building near Jerusalem’s sun-soaked Talpiot neighborhood on May 14, 2018, rejects the criticism that the move has amounted to little more than a nasty diplomatic poke in the eye to Palestinians, with few diplomatic payoffs.

Contrary to claims that the new embassy has meant the end of a U.S. consulate in Jerusalem for Palestinians, Mr. Friedman said in an interview that the long-standing Arab outreach operations have been folded into an enhanced diplomatic mission in a way that benefits everyone.

“The merger of the embassy and the consulate has opened up significant diplomatic opportunities and has greatly expanded our Jerusalem footprint,” the ambassador told The Washington Times in an interview, although he declined to offer specifics on embassy construction plans.

An embassy spokesperson told The Times that U.S. officials have only begun the process of a permanent site selection in Jerusalem, saying the design, planning, permitting and construction process is expected to take years. It has not been decided whether the final site will be at the building in the Talpiot neighborhood.

The building is on a plot known as the Arnona property, which straddles an area that was no man’s land for years after Israel’s 1948 war with its Arab neighbors.

It was the site of the widely publicized dedication ceremony last year in the months after Mr. Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The decision sent champagne corks popping among the nationalist government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but sparked outrage across the Middle East.

“What a glorious day,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the time. “You can only build peace on truth, and the truth is that Jerusalem has been and will always be the capital of the Jewish people, the capital of the Jewish state.”

Arab leaders characterized the development as an unfair cementing of U.S. support for Israel’s side of the most sensitive issue in the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians claim Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital and were particularly angered because past agreements said the city’s permanent status could be decided only in a comprehensive final deal.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has since cut ties with the Trump administration and declared the U.S. unfit as a mediator in such negotiations. The anger was underscored on the day of the embassy dedication ceremony, when Israeli forces fatally shot 57 Palestinians during a mass protest that erupted along the Gaza border fence with Israel about 40 miles from Jerusalem.

Despite the outrage, the U.S. official who spoke with The Times insisted that the embassy move “does not signal a change of U.S. policy” and Washington “continues to take no position on final status issues, including boundaries or borders.”

“The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final-status negotiations between the parties,” the embassy spokesperson said. “We continue to conduct a full range of reporting, outreach and programming in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as with Palestinians in Jerusalem.”

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