U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv - photo by Jacob Kornbluh
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The White House announcement of the presidential signing of the Embassy waiver was no big surprise in Jerusalem: Israeli officials and politicians have been preparing for this scenario for weeks, after hearing from their US counterparts that the President intends to move the Embassy as he promised during the campaign, but that he believes that this is the wrong timing for such a move. The fear is that a move today could jeopardize Trump’s Mideast peace efforts. Still, the actual signing sparked a predictable wave of political reactions, with the Prime Minister’s office leading the tone with the general headline of “disappointment.” Netanyahu stressed in a statement that delaying the Embassy move “distances peace because it reinforces the Palestinian illusion that the Jewish people and its State have no connection to Jerusalem,” but added that “Israel appreciates President Trump’s friendship and his commitment to the subsequent transfer of the Embassy.” Bayit Yehudi leader, Naftali Bennett, echoed Netanyahu’s argument that delaying the Embassy move harms the prospects of peace “because it fosters a false expectation among the Palestinians to divide Jerusalem, which will never happen.” Likud Minister Yariv Levin tweeted “This is not the way to make America great again” and his colleague Ze’ev Elkin called on the President to announce the move “at the next opportunity,” in order to move the Embassy during the 50th anniversary of the city’s unification.
From the left side of the spectrum, fingers were also pointed at Netanyahu and his government’s policies. Opposition leader Issac Herzog said that “Netanyahu learned another lesson today, that there are no shortcuts and anyone who wants international recognition must reach a courageous political deal.” Amir Peretz, who is the leading contender for Herzog’s seat in the upcoming July Labour leadership race, said that “Netanyahu and his right-wing policies are the reason why there are no embassies in Jerusalem, including the US Embassy.” Meretz leader, Zehava Gal-On, commended President Trump for “a correct decision at this time. The White House is signaling to the government that Trump is trying to make a move with the Palestinians. The Embassy move would have blown up the matter before it even began”.
Right-wing disappointment over the delay of the Embassy move is likely to lead to increased pressure on another controversial issue – settlement construction. The Higher Planning Committee in the Civil Administration is expected to meet next week in order to advance plans for more than 2,500 housing units in the settlements. Netanyahu has postponed the meeting in recent weeks, to avoid embarrassment ahead of President Trump’s visit to Israel, and has reportedly been examining some of the proposed plans in recent days, raising right wing speculations that the PMO might push only to approve plans that are confined to the settlement blocs. “It will be very serious if the plans make a distinction between communities” the head of the Shomron regional council, Yossi Dagan, told the right wing newspaper Makor Rishon today, adding that “the creation of settlement blocs could lead to a political earthquake that would endanger the continuation of the government’s term. I believe and trust the Prime Minister, and I would not imagine that he would withdraw from his commitment to strengthening the settlements.” On the other hand, Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg slammed the proposed plans and said that “The government does not need Trump to destroy our future here in Israel. It is doing it by itself. The settlements are the most significant obstacle to peace and in this process the government joyfully continuing the occupation and settlements instead of ending them.”
The Embassy issue was the big story in Israel today, but the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord made waves here, too.
Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz spoke to Kafe Knesset about the climate accord and other issues of the day:
KK: What do you think of Trump taking the US out of the Paris Climate Accord?
Steinitz: “I think that it is a sad moment. In my opinion, even if there is no certainty but only 50% probability that we are destroying the climate and the future of this planet, we have to take counter-steps to be on the safe side and do everything in order to reduce pollution and take care of the next generation.
“In addition to this, I think the Paris Accords were a rare moment that almost all countries in the world, almost all humanity – with only a few exceptions, Syria and Nicaragua. All other 195 countries overcame all their differences and different perspectives to save our planet and the future of our planet. I think it’s important in of itself. That doesn’t happen every day that countries all over the world overcome their differences to take care of our planet and the future of the planet. Therefore I’m very sorry, and I can assure you that as Israeli Minister of Energy I am fully committed to the Paris Accords and my plan to reduce the use of coal and replace coal with natural gas and renewable energies in our power stations.”
KK: What’s your reaction to Trump signing the waiver and keeping the US Embassy in Tel Aviv?
Steinitz: “That’s also something I’m very sorry about. We thought Trump would be different and this time the promise would be fulfilled. I think it’s a shame. It’s abnormal that everybody knows Jerusalem is capital of Israel [but doesn’t officially recognize it]. When Trump was here he visited Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv or Herzliya or Ramat Gan. Obama too, all leaders from around the world visit Jerusalem. Embassies work vis-à-vis the government and Parliament in Jerusalem. This weird phenomenon that the [embassy] buildings are in Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan and Herzliya is only because of Arab Islamic pressure. It’s a kind of BDS…and it’s high time to end this and put the embassies in Jerusalem.”
KK: Do you think holding off on moving the Embassy will help the peace process, like the White House said?
Steinitz: “There is no real reason to make any linkage to the peace process. Jerusalem will remain the united capital of Israel, so having a US Embassy in western Jerusalem – why should it bother the Palestinians? It’s totally artificial [the idea that moving the Embassy will stop peace talks. If Trump were to keep one of two campaign promises, I think it’d be more reasonable and justified to keep the promise about moving the Embassy to Jerusalem and not leave the Paris Accords, rather than vice-versa.”
“Meanwhile, Haredi news site B’Hadrei Haredim had a scoop about the long-ignored Kotel compromise – the agreement to build an expanded mixed-gender, pluralistic section of the Western Wall. The government approved a decision to implement the plan nearly a year-and-a-half ago, but has made no progress on implementing it. Shas and UTJ, the Haredi parties in the coalition, have long called for it to be canceled, and according to B’hadrei, the parties’ leadership met with Netanyahu last night to repeat their demand. Netanyahu offered, instead, to keep the status quo – he won’t cancel the government decision, but he still won’t do anything to make it actually happen. This way, he can have his cake and eat it too – he can tell non-Orthodox American Jews that he’s working on it and it’s not canceled, while the Haredim know it’s not really happening.”