Pence says US embassy in Jerusalem 'will open before the end of next year'

PHOTO: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Jan. 22, 2018, in Jerusalem. PlayAlex Kolomoisky/POOL/Jini/Xinhua/Newscom
WATCH Pence says US embassy in Jerusalem 'will open before the end of next year'

Vice President Mike Pence told Israeli lawmakers today that the United States intends to open an embassy in Jerusalem "before the end of next year," the earliest timeline the White House has so far offered for the move.

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“Jerusalem is Israel’s capital – and, as such, President Trump has directed the State Department to immediately begin initial preparations to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem," Pence said in a speech at the Israeli Knesset, the country's parliament. "In the weeks ahead, our administration will advance its plan to open the United States Embassy in Jerusalem – and that United States Embassy will open before the end of next year.”

President Donald Trump previously announced the U.S. now formally recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital and plans to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The change uproots years of U.S. policy that had left the issue of Jerusalem to final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, while Palestinians say the eastern part of the city is their capital.

Trump's announcement sparked outrage among Palestinians, who have refused to meet with Pence during his visit to Israel this week. Several Arab members of the Knesset interrupted Pence's speech in protest and were thrown out.

The administration previously said that it would take a couple of years at least to find a site for a new embassy in Jerusalem, obtain the proper paperwork, build and secure the facility, and move staff.

“Probably no earlier than three years out, and that’s pretty ambitious,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a State Department employee town hall in December.

But more recently, Tillerson had been considering a plan to retrofit an existing consular building used by the U.S. mission in Jerusalem, enhance its security, and reopen it as the new embassy. While this quick move has Tillerson concerned about the safety of staff, it has support in the White House for its decisive action.

PHOTO: Israels Arab parliamentary bloc and Knesset members scuffle with security after they held signs in protest during the speech of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Israels parliament in Jerusalem, Jan. 22, 2018.Ariel Schalit/AFP/Getty Images
Israel's Arab parliamentary bloc and Knesset members scuffle with security after they held signs in protest during the speech of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, Jan. 22, 2018.

Despite Pence's announcement today, Tillerson had not officially signed off on that plan as of Sunday night, according to a senior State Department official.

The retrofitted building could serve as a temporary embassy, used while the search for a permanent site continues, a senior State Department official told reporters Friday.

But either way, Tillerson is moving the process along as fast as possible, the official added: "There was never any policy intent to slow-roll the issue of an embassy move ... The focus is on executing the president's decision in a manner which assures the safety, security, functionality of any premises."

PHOTO: The U.S. Embassy building in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Jan. 20, 2017. Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images
The U.S. Embassy building in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Jan. 20, 2017.

The embassy move has so incensed the Palestinians that they say the U.S. can no longer be a fair arbiter of any peace process with the Israelis.

Pence used his speech to call on the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table, reiterating that the U.S. will support a two-state solution if both sides agreed to it.

"We strongly urge the Palestinian leadership to return to the table. Peace can only come through dialogue," he said.

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