U.S. administration officials and Republican senators in Jerusalem for Monday’s inauguration of the new U.S. Embassy hailed President Donald Trump’s decision to move it, as well as his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, as evidence of renewed American leadership in the Middle East and the world.
“By recognizing Jerusalem as the capital on the [election] campaign and making it happen in the first part of his presidency signals to everyone, including the North Koreans, that there’s a new sheriff in town,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), who is leading a delegation of four Republican senators attending Monday’s festivities.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, meanwhile, said recent reaction on the U.S. campaign trail suggested the embassy move was the most popular thing Trump has done since becoming president last year.
Although there was bipartisan support for the decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, former senator Joe Lieberman was the only Democrat expected to attend Monday's dedication ceremony.
Graham said the embassy move was not meant to alienate the Palestinians, who claim the eastern part of the city as their future capital and are protesting the embassy move. “We recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel without any animosity,” he said, speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem.
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Speaking at the same event, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) repeated claims that the embassy move would actually aid peace efforts. However, he refused to comment on whether the senators plan to meet with any Palestinian representatives while in the region.
Citing the political divide between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Fatah faction ruling the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Graham said the peace process would only truly begin when “the Palestinians can organize themselves under a single banner and pursue peace.”
The U.S. Embassy had been located in Tel Aviv since Israel’s founding 70 years ago, despite long-standing bipartisan support and declarations from Trump’s predecessors that it should be moved to Jerusalem to cement U.S. recognition of the city as Israel’s capital.
“We are today witnessing history,” Cruz said. “A restoration of a nation and a people that existed for three millennia. Jerusalem is and was and will remain the capital of Israel. For the past 70 years, the United States operated on a fiction – a fiction that did not recognize this capital.”
There is concern that the move could spark violent Palestinian protests in the West Bank and Gaza. Dozens have already been killed over recent weeks in ongoing clashes on the Gaza border, linked to Israel’s 70th anniversary and the embassy move.
Cruz said the threat of violence should not deter anyone. “We may well see violence today,” he said. “We may see terrorists who commit acts of murder today, but it is wrong.
“The truth is, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and America is recognizing that unquestionable truth,” he added. “It’s clear that the blood is on the hands of the murderers who care so little about human life.”
A few blocks away from the senators’ news conference, the Orthodox Union (OU) – the umbrella organization of North American Orthodox congregations – held a lavish breakfast in the ballroom of a Jerusalem hotel to kick-start their celebrations for the embassy move. A string orchestra performed on stage, accompanied by a digital display of fluttering American and Israeli flags, with U.S. administration officials as well as Israeli cabinet members taking to the stage.
Friedman, himself an Orthodox Jew, thanked Trump special advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, as well as U.S. Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt, for being key figures in the White House decision to move the embassy.
He also noted that Trump receives most acclaim during rallies when he mentions his U.S. Embassy decision. “One of the things that gratifies me tremendously is that now we are entering yet another campaign season and as President Trump travels throughout the nation, his biggest applause line in places like Indiana and Michigan – I’m not talking about Long Island or Borough Park – is when he reminds people he is moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Friedman said, adding, “It is the single most popular thing he has done.”
People “applaud the United States when it returns to the leadership in the world, when it returns to moral clarity, when it returns to the truth,” Friedman added.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, meanwhile, said the Iranian nuclear deal was evidence that the United States is back as a decisive world leader.
“It is only appropriate that, in same week we are moving the embassy, the president refused to sign waivers on the nuclear agreement with Iran,” he said. “We are doing this because it’s the right thing to do for the United States, for Israel, the region and to protect the rest of the world.”
He added that sanctions would remain in place until an agreement is reached that ensures “Iran never has nuclear weapons” and stops developing ballistic missiles and supporting terrorist groups in the region.
The OU has lobbied intensively over many decades for the embassy move. Monday’s gathering has raised its political profile in Israel and also served as a reminder that a growing number of American Orthodox Jews are now voting Republican. According to a September 2017 American Jewish Committee poll, 54 percent of Orthodox Jews said they voted for Trump in the 2016 election. The overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jews voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.