By: Rick Gladstone; The New York Times International
The mayor of Jerusalem says that he is optimistic that once Donald J. Trump becomes president, the United States will quickly move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to its contested ancient city, a step every other administration has resisted to the annoyance of many Israeli Jews.
In an interview while visiting New York, the mayor, Nir Barkat, extolled Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge to relocate the embassy and said that he thought it would happen “sooner rather than later.”
The embassy’s location is one of the most diplomatically vexing issues in the American-Israeli relationship. While Israel regards Jerusalem as its capital, the official position of most countries is that Jerusalem’s status must be determined through negotiations as part of a broader agreement between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.
The Palestinians have said they view East Jerusalem, territory Israel captured from Jordan during the 1967 war, as the capital of their future state. The official Israeli position is that the whole city, including the territory Israel later annexed, is its eternal, undivided capital.
The official State Department position is that the status of Jerusalem “is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.” The issue is so contentious that the Obama administration took it to the Supreme Court, which last year struck down a law that would have allowed American parents of children born in Jerusalem to obtain passports saying the children were born in Israel.
Mr. Trump is not the first presidential candidate to pledge that the embassy would be relocated. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made those vows only to backtrack over concerns about prejudging the final outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But Mr. Trump’s campaign assertion that the embassy would be moved “fairly quickly” suggested that he was not concerned that such a change would be viewed as taking sides.
As an outspoken proponent of embassy relocation, Mr. Barkat quickly congratulated Mr. Trump after the election, posting a message on his Twitter account.
In the interview, on Thursday, Mr. Barkat said he had commended Mr. Trump for “his very clear statements” on moving the embassy. “It should have been done years ago,” he said.
“My impression is, because I know some of the people and friends around Donald Trump, I believe that it will happen, sooner rather than later,” he said.
Mr. Barkat’s optimism partly reflects a broad confidence expressed by Israel’s top leaders that they will have a much closer relationship with the Trump administration than they had with its predecessor.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as much in a “60 Minutes” interview recorded for broadcast on Sunday, disclosing plans to talk with Mr. Trump about how to subvert the international agreement reached last year with Iran that limits its nuclear capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief. During the campaign, Mr. Trump said that dismantling “the disastrous deal with Iran” was a priority, but he has not specified what he would do. Israel considers Iran a prime security threat.
“I think what options we have are much more than you think,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “There are ways, various ways of undoing it.” He did not explain them.
“The only good thing I can say about the deal with Iran is that it brought the Arab states and Israel closer together,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
The relocation of the embassy would undoubtedly cause an Arab backlash. One reason Israeli leaders have generally not pushed the issue is concern that it would harm their relationships with Jordan and Egypt, even threatening long standing peace treaties with those neighboring countries.
Asked about Mr. Barkat’s prediction, Palestinian diplomats in the United States were blunt.
“I hope that the new administration will carefully measure its policy toward the city and continue to adhere to the declared and official position of the U.S. about Jerusalem,” Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, the chief Palestine Liberation Organization representative to the United States, said in an email. “Taking sides with Israel on such a sensitive and highly emotional issue will further escalate tension in an area that is already volatile.”
Mr. Barkat, 57, a successful business executive and a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party, is in the final two years of his second term as Jerusalem’s mayor. He was visiting New York to receive an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University in a Sunday ceremony.
In the interview, Mr. Barkat complimented Mr. Trump for promoting positions about the Middle East that are more attuned to how Israeli Jews see things.
“I think the last administration confused the Middle East,” Mr. Barkat said. “In the Middle East, you have to maintain a very clear position that you support the good guys and fight the bad guys.”
He suggested that the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran, which lead to the nuclear agreement, had emboldened Iran.
“The point is that if all of a sudden you try to be nice to the Iranians and cut a favorable deal with them, then it sends a message in the Middle East that maybe it’s worthwhile being the bad guy,” he said.
Mr. Trump has surrounded himself with Israel policy advisors who have indicated they approve of West Bank settlements, which the Obama administration, the United Nations and many governments regard as illegitimate and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers have also played down the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a longstanding cornerstone of American policy under Democrats and Republicans.
Mr. Barkat said he was friends with one of Mr. Trump’s daughters, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who the president-elect has suggested could help broker an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The mayor said he first met the couple a few years ago in Jerusalem.
Israeli news organizations have recently reported that Mr. Kushner’s family foundation has given charitable donations to Israeli settlements.
“Naturally, I believe we are aligned in our thinking on what the right thing to do in Israel and for the Jewish people is,” Mr. Barkat said in the interview, “and I do believe that both Jared and Ivanka will probably impact and give the right advice to President-elect Trump.”