The Trump administration is moving faster than expected to transfer the American Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv by 2019, senior officials said Thursday, despite insisting last month that the move would not happen until the end of President Trump’s term.
The administration’s plans, following Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, suggest it no longer cares about cushioning the blow of the new policy, which has drawn angry protests from Palestinians and other Arabs and cast Mr. Trump’s peacemaking ambitions into doubt.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel first broached the prospect of a faster move on Wednesday, telling reporters that the embassy would be moved “in the course of the year.” That put him at odds with Mr. Trump, who hours later said, “We’re not really looking at that.”
It was not clear whether Mr. Trump’s advisers had briefed him on the new timetable until Thursday. Officials said he was referring to the construction of an entirely new embassy compound in Jerusalem, which Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson predicted would be completed “probably no earlier than three years out, and that’s pretty ambitious.”
But the State Department has since settled on a more modest plan to convert an existing consular building in Arnona, a neighborhood in West Jerusalem. That will reduce the cost of the project and allow Ambassador David M. Friedman and his staff to move there as early as next year.
The timing of the move has caused tensions between Mr. Tillerson and the White House. Mr. Friedman, who worked as a lawyer for Mr. Trump, pushed to move the embassy this year, and Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who oversees the president’s Middle East peace initiative, backed him.
But Mr. Tillerson petitioned Mr. Trump in a meeting on Thursday for more time to upgrade the security of the building, and the president agreed. “What you’ll see from the secretary is that we will do this at the pace of security, not at the pace of politics,” said the under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Steven Goldstein.
The Arnona building sits near the Green Line, which served as the de facto border of the state of Israel from 1949 until the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. While the building, which now issues visas and offers consular services to American citizens, would need to be retrofitted for the ambassador to conduct classified operations, it is a fairly new structure with better physical security than the embassy in Tel Aviv.
The timetable for moving the embassy became a charged footnote to Mr. Trump’s landmark decision. When the president signed a proclamation in December recognizing Jerusalem as the capital, he quietly signed another document waiving a congressional demand that the United States move the embassy to Jerusalem within six months.
At the time, White House officials said practical and logistical considerations drove the decision. The State Department, they said, could not open a functioning embassy in Jerusalem on the timetable stipulated under a 1995 law that requires the president to sign a national security waiver every six months to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv.
Scouting a site, commissioning a design and building the embassy compound could take up to six years, according to State Department officials, and cost $600 million to $1 billion.
Legal experts, however, said nothing in the 1995 law would prevent the United States from hanging a placard outside the existing consulate in Jerusalem and calling it the embassy.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States hastily set up embassies in temporary quarters in the capitals of newly independent republics. American ambassadors have sometimes shuttled between offices in countries like Myanmar, which built new capital cities.
But putting off the move also had diplomatic advantages for a White House eager to keep alive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It avoided creating a tangible symbol of Mr. Trump’s new policy and spared the White House a series of decisions — like where in the city to place the embassy — that would begin to define the geography of the president’s deliberately general statement about Jerusalem.
Since Mr. Trump’s announcement, however, relations between the United States and the Palestinians have curdled. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, vowed never again to take part in peace negotiations brokered by the United States. In a recent speech to Palestinian officials, he said of Mr. Trump, “May your house be destroyed.”
The administration, in turn, said it would withhold $65 million — or more than half the funding that the United States generally provides — to a United Nations agency that aids Palestinian refugees.
The decision was a rebuke to the United Nations, whose members voted by a lopsided margin last month to condemn the United States for its Jerusalem decision. It also reflected the view of some in the White House that the organization, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, needed to be overhauled and was impeding, rather than aiding, the peace process.
Moving the embassy quickly, officials said, could also be a political boon for Mr. Trump in a midterm election year, given the popularity of his decision to recognize Jerusalem with evangelical voters and hard-line pro-Israel Americans like the casino magnate Sheldon G. Adelson.
Mr. Trump, a former property developer, has taken a personal interest in the location and cost of embassies. This month, he said on Twitter that he had canceled a planned visit to London out of pique that the Obama administration had sold “the best located and finest embassy in London for ‘peanuts,’ only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars.”
The George W. Bush administration made the decision to close the embassy at Grosvenor Square in Mayfair and build a new tower south of the Thames River, at a cost of more than $1 billion.
In an interview with Reuters, Mr. Trump said of the Jerusalem embassy: “We’re looking at doing a beautiful embassy, but not one that costs $1.2 billion. You know what that means, you know what I mean by that?”
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