Israel Approves Plan to Open U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on Independence Day

Planning board waives building permit, allowing expedient construction on the U.S. consulate in order to turn the building into a temporary embassy by May

File photo: View of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.
Ammar Awad/Reuters

Acting at the request of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the National Planning and Building Council exempted the U.S. government from permitting requirements to enable the relocation of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May. That will allow work to proceed on a building in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood that now houses a U.S. consular section and will be repurposed as a temporary embassy.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

The approval comes a week after Kahlon said he would use his authority to arrange to waive the building permit.

The work includes the construction of a 3.2-meter-high wall and an additional road as an escape route from the embassy, to satisfy U.S. security required.

When the prospect of the permit exemption was first raised last week, it prompted opposition from legal experts who claimed that the law on which the Finance Ministry was relying only applies to projects of national importance. The uses exempted from the permit are to be only temporary, they claimed.

For her part, the head of the national planning authority, Dalit Zilber, said: “The national council considered the planning aspects of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem at the hearing. In light of the fact that the request [for the permit exemption] does not exceed the existing planning framework, the council decided unanimously to recommend the rapid advancement of the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem on the date on which it had been planned.”

Since it was enacted in 2013, the law providing the exemption has been resorted to 12 times, applying to infrastructure projects that the government was seeking to build quickly, including an earthquake warning system, temporary electricity facilities and a fuel line and dam project for the Sea of Galilee.

At Tuesday’s hearing on the plans for the new embassy, ministry officials said the embassy’s relocation to the consular building in Arnona was temporary. They said the escape road would be integrated into a neighborhood road, making the resort to the statutory exemption well-founded.

U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and announced that the American embassy would be moved to the city, breaking with other world powers.

Trump’s reversal of decades of U.S. and broad international policy was welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “historic decision,” but it drew criticism from around the world and outraged Palestinians, who want a capital for their own future state in eastern parts of the city.

Israeli authorities have said the embassy will opened on May 14, the 70th anniversary of the state’s establishment, according to the Gregorian calendar. Independence Day is celebrated in Israel according to the Hebrew calendar; this year it starts on the evening of April 18 and ends the following evening.

“We will not allow needless bureaucracy to hold up the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital,” Kahlon said in a ministry statement. “This is a strategic diplomatic move for Israel and the planning agencies under me will do whatever is necessary to accommodate the schedule being demanded.” The planning permit waiver for the embassy will be good for three years, the Finance Ministry statement said. Building a permanent embassy could take several years. Israel has expedited construction permits to enable temporary quarters for the U.S. Embassy to open in Jerusalem as planned in May, the Finance Ministry said.

“Initially, the interim embassy in Arnona will contain office space for the ambassador and a small staff,” a U.S. embassy official in Tel Aviv said. “By the end of next year, we intend to open a new embassy Jerusalem annex on the Arnona compound that will provide the ambassador and his team with expanded interim office space,” he said, adding that a search for site for the construction of a permanent embassy had begun.

The permanent embassy is expected to be housed in the adjacent building that had been the Diplomat Hotel and currently provides housing for 450 elderly immigrants. The lease for the housing of the elderly residents expires in 2020, although at this point no alterative accommodations have been found for them.

In the past, other sites in Jerusalem had been suggested for the embassy including a lot that the American government already owns known as the Allenby compound.