The sale of the U.S. ambassador’s former residence in Herzliya Pituah raises an issue of public concern that the city has been slow to address: What happens to the two dunams (half acre) of a nature reserve that were handed over specifically for the embassy’s use, now that the house is passing into private hands?
The U.S. Embassy said Tuesday that the sale has been finalized, and as Haaretz has previously reported, the buyer is thought to be Jewish-American billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The sale price is thought to be in the neighborhood of $100 million.
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Adelson pushed for the sale to be finalized before the U.S. presidential election in November, for fear that if Democratic candidate Joe Biden is elected, the U.S. government might decide not to sell the house after all.
The rationale for the sale is that with the U.S. Embassy having moved to Jerusalem, it’s no longer convenient for the ambassador to live in Herzliya and commute. But Adelson, who pushed hard for the embassy move, feared that a new ambassador under a Democratic administration might decide instead to continue living in Herzliya and work from the former embassy building in nearby Tel Aviv, which is now a consulate. If that happened, the new Jerusalem embassy would effectively become a dead letter.
Aside from the political ramifications, however, the sale of the residence also raises the question of what will happen to the land in the nature reserve that was given to the U.S. Embassy when the residence was built in the early 1960s. That land was never intended to be transferred to a private individual, so once the sale goes through, it should seemingly revert back to public use.
Altogether, the residence occupies five dunams, two dunams of which used to be part of a nature reserve. This area, which forms part of the grounds and contains the pool and other facilities, was separated from the reserve in 1962 and rezoned from “open public land” to “open private land.” But the approved plan stated explicitly that the purpose was to provide “private land for the United States Embassy.”
As the years passed, the residence also took over another bit of the reserve by building a sitting area near the southwest corner of the house on land that was and still is zoned as public land. This land amounts to 67 square meters, according to the municipality. Nevertheless, it never did anything about the takeover.
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Unlike the other private villas built nearby, however, the ambassador’s residence never barred public access to the cliff overlooking the sea. People can still walk past the western side of the house on their way to the beach.
The municipality is now looking into whether there is anything it can do about the “open private land” it gave the embassy. Because this land was allocated specifically for the embassy’s use, the embassy could seemingly be required to remove the pool and other facilities and return the land to the city if it sells the house to a private individual.
That, at least, is the argument that lawyer Shahar Ben-Meir made in a letter to the municipality asking what it is doing about the issue.
“Once the property ceases to serve the U.S. Embassy, the special plan ought to be canceled ipso facto and the land should return to its original purpose as open public land,” he wrote. “The right to use this land as open private land belongs solely to the U.S. Embassy, and therefore, any buyer that isn’t the U.S. Embassy has no personal right to it.”
The embassy declined to respond to questions on the issue.
The Herzliya municipality said that according to the information in its possession, “the land in question was never owned by the municipality and also wasn’t zoned as public. The goal of the plan from the 1960s was to zone this plot as open private land for the U.S. Embassy. By law, selling the property doesn’t annul the plan’s provisions or its zoning.
“Nevertheless, the Herzliya municipality is currently studying the implications of the sale, assuming it takes place, for the permitted uses of the land,” its statement added.