Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines: Embassy Issue Surprises a Divided Israeli Public

The news that Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and other key American officials are trying to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has come as a surprise to many Israelis.

Still reeling from the political firestorm unleashed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s plan to expropriate Arab-owned land in eastern Jerusalem, many Israelis do not know what to make of the embassy issue.

If the editorials and op-ed pages of the daily newspapers are a reliable yardstick, the population is largely divided on the subject.

In an opinion piece that appeared in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv last week, commentator Ben-Dror Yemini wrote, “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, with or without foreign embassies.”

While calling the relocation “eminently desirable” from the standpoint of national honor, Yemini asked whether the transfer is “in line with the national interest, when the [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiations are going through such a delicate stage.”

In contrast, Schmuel Shnitzer, in a complementary article in Ma’ariv, welcomed the relocation wholeheartedly, viewing it as tacit recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over a unified Jerusalem.

“In the entire world, there is no other country which agrees to foreign embassies being situated outside its capital,” he said. “Senator Dole is a courageous man and a true friend of ours. Let us not respond to the initiative as a nation of frightened cowards.”

The mass-circulation Yediot Achronot included an opinion poll on the embassy in its weekend edition.

Asked whether Israel should encourage the United States to transfer its embassy to Jerusalem, 58 percent of those polled expressed approval. But a significant minority — 35 percent — did not. The remaining 7 percent of the 502 people surveyed voiced no opinion.

At the eye of the storm is an empty field, no larger than couple of city blocks.

Located in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, just west of the Green Line that marks Israel’s pre-1967 border, the plot of land in question is already being prepared to serve as the location for the new American Embassy.

With the United States having already secured a building permit from the Jerusalem municipality in 1991, there is nothing to impede construction – – except politics.

Although bulldozers have dug a huge crater, no construction has actually begun at the site.

The congressional legislation introduced last week — in the Senate by Dole and in the House by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) — would force the State Department to begin construction before the end of 1996.

The U.S. ambassador would move in no later than May 31, 1991, according to the legislation, which has received wide backing from Jewish groups.

Because the ultimate decision on whether to move the embassy is out of their control, most ordinary Israelis seem perplexed by the entire affair.

Judging from the remarks of people enjoying a day out in the center of town, most Jews here do not seem to care where the embassy is located.

“Do I care where the embassy is?” said Maurice Sarfati, in response to a reporter’s question. “Not much. I’m used to the situation and in fact, I think we have enough trouble without embassies being here.

“Heads of state bring traffic jams and closed streets. Who needs it?”

Sarfati, a 47-year-old tax investigator, added that from a political standpoint, “the situation in Jerusalem is complicated enough.”

“Everyone knows that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” he said. “We don’t need to prove it.”

This opinion was shared by Lior Gelfand, a conference organizer from Herzliya.

“Tel Aviv is the business capital of Israel, so think the embassy should be left there. Some friends of mine were just saying how odd it is to hear that the embassy may be relocated, since the existing embassy is undergoing a lot of renovation.”

Although Gelfand favors leaving the embassy where it is, he does not believe that Israel can compromise on eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of an eventual state of their own.

“Personally, there is no way that Israel can give Jerusalem to the Palestinians. As far as I’m concerned, Jerusalem is not a subject open for discussion.

“I’m an Israeli, a sabra, and I’m willing to be flexible on Gaza, and the other so-called occupied territories. Even the Golan, if we can assure peace. But Jerusalem is not part of the equation,” said Gelfand.

One young mother, who asked that her name not be used, said moving the embassy is not the sole issue. Referring to the fact that visas, passports and birth certificates issued by the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem bear the word “Jerusalem,” not “Israel,” she said, “I don’t give a good god Henry where the embassy is located. I don’t mind going to East Jerusalem,” where the U.S. consulate is located.

“What I want is a guarantee that the next time my children, who were born in West Jerusalem, need a new passport, their place of birth will say `Jerusalem, Israel,'” she said.

But Daniel Moshe, a 34-year-old electrician, said moving the embassy would benefit Israel greatly. “If the embassy comes to Jerusalem,” he said, “the world will know that the American care about Jerusalem, and that they support our claim to an undivided city.

“This country has been around 47 years,” he said. “Haven’t we waited long enough?”

NEXT STORY