Israel Scrambles as Trump's Plan to Relocate U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem Stuck in Red Tape

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is promoting an emergency move that would bypass planning regulations enforced by law; hurdles posed by Israeli law and U.S. demands complicate plan

A U.S. flag flies over part of the the consulate compound in Jerusalem.
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said he was seeking an exemption from planning regulations to ensure that the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem can be upgraded to become the American embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14, 2018.

Kahlon said he has asked the National Planning Committee, chaired by Avigdor Yitzhaki, to impose a rarely used exemption in the National Planning and Building Law empowering him to request the exception and hoped the committee would approve the measure when at an emergency meeting next Tuesday.

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Kahlon also informed U.S. President Donald Trump via a tweet of the efforts underway. “President @realDonaldTrump , I’m happy to inform you that we are moving forward with the preparations, making sure that no bureaucracy slows down the process of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem,” he wrote.

But planning experts were quick to cast doubt on Kahlon’s plans, noting that he would have to explain the planning committee why enabling the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the compressed timeframe was a national priority, as the law requires it to be.

Section 266 Part 5 of the law has only been used 12 times since it was put into effect five years ago, Yossi Miller, an attorney specializing in planning and building law, told TheMarker. The state might also find itself having to justify the decision on national priority grounds in front of the High Court of Justice, he said.

“It’s evident that the government likes this option and in the National Planning and Building Committee there were many discussions about it. Nevertheless, it’s not at all certain that the effort now underway to convert the consulate to an embassy meets the standard of the law,” said Miller.

Trump’s December decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and a follow-up announcement last month that the the U.S. would move the embassy by Israel’s next Independence Day was condemned by the Palestinians and much of the world but hailed in Israel as a important diplomatic victory.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the February 24 announcement to relocate the embassy as a “great moment for the State of Israel.”

However, for the move to happen, the U.S. State Department is requiring several changes to the existing compound in Jerusalem’s mostly residential Arnona neighborhood.

Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem has distributed a letter in recent days that outlines America’s requirements for upgrading the compound to an embassy. The list includes erection of a 3.2-meter-high wall with a façade of Jerusalem stone around the compound as well as construction of an emergency escape route for embassy personnel.

The letter notes that the local zoning rules were designed for the more modest needs of a consulate, not for a full-fledged embassy. It said that if the embassy followed the usual planning process approvals would take far longer than the May 14 deadline.

“My position is that without any doubt we are talking about an undertaking of urgent national importance,” Rotem concluded.

Another issue facing the would-be embassy is the fate of some 450 elderly immigrants living in the former Diplomat Hotel adjacent to the consulate. The hotel is supposed to become the main building of the embassy compound, but the Immigrant Absorption Ministry’s lease doesn’t run out until 2020.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in response that the initiative on the exemption was Kahlon’s alone and that it was not involved. 

It has been employed, for instance, in order to construct a national earthquake warning system; it was also used for temporary electric-power installation by the state-owned Israel Electric Corporation that needed to be erected quickly and for a dam that was required for the Kinneret.

“Until now the projects that have won approval for an exemption under the clause have been deemed important because in one way or another they involved a human life or an environmental hazard,” said Miller.

“In this instance, by comparison, it will be difficult to prove that the road that is being paved will be temporary and likewise it will be hard to show that anyone’s life will be endangered if the project isn’t undertaken,” he explained.

He said that even if some of the work being undertaken amounts to temporary measures in the first stage of converting the consulate to an embassy the only reason for these interim steps is the “symbolic issue connecting with independence celebrations,” Miller said.

Shahar Ben-Meir, an attorney who was appealed to the high Court in connection with Case 4000, on Wednesday urged Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to block Kahlon’s plan on the grounds that it is illegal.

He said Netanyahu’s involvement in the exemption amounted to a conflict of interest since the Jerusalem law firm Shimron Molcho is closely connected with the prime minister and handles legal work connected with planning and construction for the American consulate.