U.S. Moves Forward With Jerusalem Embassy Construction Amid Questions About Biden’s Israel Policy

Trump scores lasting victory but other pro-Israel policies in doubt

Israeli flag March Takes Place During Jerusalem Day
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December 11, 2020

The United States is expanding its embassy in Jerusalem, according to a new State Department notification transmitted to Congress and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. The move comes amid speculation that incoming president Joe Biden, who has said he will not move the embassy, will reverse other Trump-administration policies in the region, such as recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, cutting off aid to the Palestinian government, and withdrawing from the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran.

The Dec. 3 notification, which was submitted to Congress as part of reporting requirements under the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, reveals the United States plans to expand its office space in Jerusalem in 2021 and will continue its search for "a permanent embassy office building" in the holy city. Trump moved the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018, bucking years of conventional American foreign policy by recognizing the city as Israel’s official capital.

Given that incoming president Joe Biden has indicated that he will leave the embassy in Jerusalem, Trump's embassy move could be a lasting victory for the administration on its way out.

Other Trump policies may not share the same fate. Biden has shown an openness to adopting harsher policies toward Israel. He discussed the possibility of opening a U.S. consulate in east Jerusalem, giving legitimacy to Palestinian claims on this portion of the city. It is also likely a Biden administration will resume aid to the Palestinian government, which was cut by Trump amid revelations the Palestinians were using aid funds to pay convicted terrorists and their families. Further, Biden wants to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the Israeli government has rejected over concerns it enabled Iran to fund its regional terror proxy groups.

Anti-Israel organizations are pushing Biden’s transition team to tap scores of officials who are critical of the United States' close relationship with the world’s only Jewish state. And some of the more radical elements of the Democratic Party have called for conditioning U.S. aid to Israel on territorial concessions to the Palestinians in a bid to restart peace talks. It also remains to be seen how Biden will handle the Trump administration’s landmark recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights area bordering Syria.

Unless Biden intervenes in the first days of his presidency, the State Department will complete the construction of an expanded office space near its temporary embassy facility in Jerusalem, according to a copy of the State Department’s progress report to Congress. The expansion will add new workspaces, as well as a Controlled Access Area to its current facility. As the United States finishes this construction, it is assessing potential sites for a permanent Jerusalem embassy that can provide the appropriate work space and security.

Biden will enter office amid concerns about his future dealings with Israel. Israelis say they expect "a downturn in relations with the United States" once Biden enters office, according to a new poll published in the Jewish press. Around 74 percent of those polled said they believed Biden would be "less friendly" than Trump.

Biden’s relationship with Israel has not always been good. In 2010, during a trip to the Jewish state as vice president, Biden became entangled in a dispute over Israel’s decision to build hundreds of new homes in east Jerusalem, which the Obama administration considered disputed territory. Biden was reportedly livid with the Israeli government for announcing the construction while he was in the country.

In 2016, as the Obama administration was leaving office, Biden was forced to deny accusations he lobbied foreign nations to support an anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations.

One regional expert said it will be difficult for the Biden administration to walk back Trump’s decision to back Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.

"It would be hard to reverse course on the Golan, given that Syria is barely a state," said Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East expert and vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "But it is likely that the new administration will restore funding and recognition to the Palestinians. The Biden team is also signaling a possible return to the [Iran nuclear deal], which would be the move that would prompt the most alarm in Israel."