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News Brief: U.S. Embassy In Israel Moves To Jerusalem

May 14, 2018
Originally published on May 14, 2018 10:10 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

History is happening in Israel today as the U.S. moves its embassy from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. Let's remember, President Trump announced this move back in December.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement.

GREENE: But that peace feels farther away to Palestinians, who have long wanted to recognize part of Jerusalem as their capital. For decades, American presidents have talked about moving the embassy, but they never did it, deciding instead that the city's status should be resolved in peace talks. Now, today, a large celebration is planned with Israelis and U.S. officials in Jerusalem. But thousands of Palestinians are expected to demonstrate and confront Israeli troops on the border between Gaza and Israel, and that could be deadly.

MARTIN: All right, we are going to talk with NPR correspondents in both places - first, to Jerusalem, where NPR's Peter Kenyon is at the site for this new embassy where the ceremony is going to take place later today.

Hey, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So let's just begin with what's supposed to go down there. Who's going to be attending? Who's going to talk?

KENYON: Well, people are going to be gathering at the former U.S. Consulate, which has a new sign now announcing it's now the embassy in Jerusalem. Ambassador David Friedman is here. He'll be leading the proceedings. In what some think is a sign of controversy surrounding this decision by President Trump to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a lot of international envoys are staying away. There was a reception last night at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Most foreign diplomats didn't attend. This is something of a symbolic move, meaning most of the embassy staff are going to stay in Tel Aviv. The ambassador will commute between the two cities, as he's done for years, except instead of working out of a hotel room, he'll have an office now. There will be some protests outside, we're told. There's been some controversy about one of the speakers, a Texas Baptist pastor who's previously insulted both Judaism and Islam, saying all Jews will go to hell and describing Islam as a heresy from the pit of hell. I'd be surprised if he repeats those comments today.

MARTIN: Yeah, for sure. So today has significance in and of itself because it's May 14. It's the 70th anniversary of Israel's independence. What's been going on in Jerusalem over the past couple of days? What has it felt like?

KENYON: Well, on the Jewish Israeli side, a lot of celebrating, obviously. Yesterday was Jerusalem Day. It's an annual holiday marking the unification of the city after the 1967 war. This year, the police didn't make Palestinian shop owners in the Old City close up for the march by Israeli nationalists. Some closed up anyway to avoid any damage. But basically, the mood is very positive among the Jewish Israelis who have long wanted the U.S. to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. There's are signs saying God bless President Trump pretty much everywhere. The U.S. says this does not determine Jerusalem's status, by the way. That still has to be negotiated. But there's a strong feeling that the U.S. is more firmly than ever on Israel's side right now.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Peter Kenyon for us, reporting from the former U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, now the U.S. Embassy. Hey, Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Rachel.

GREENE: OK. We want to turn now to NPR's Daniel Estrin, who is in the Gaza Strip. Huge protests are expected there on the border with Israel today.

Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So obviously, a very different scene compared to the one we just heard Peter describing - tell us exactly what it feels like there in Gaza.

ESTRIN: Well, I'm way far back from the Israeli border fence - flat farmland. You'll probably hear the music blasting here - Palestinian nationalist music. It was a kind of a festival atmosphere farther back from the border. But I've been observing these protests here firsthand over the course of the last six weeks, and this one looks like it's building to be the biggest one. I'm seeing throngs of people walking away from the designated protest point and setting out along the border, which could mean, you know, that we'll see the most violent confrontations between the Israeli soldiers on one side of the fence, and Palestinians are going to perceived to be as posing a threat to the border.

GREENE: You mention that these protests have been going on for weeks. Has all this been related, you know, in the buildup to the move of this embassy?

ESTRIN: Yeah. So these protests were supposed to actually culminate tomorrow on what the Palestinians call the nakba, the loss of land when Israel was formed 70 years ago. But protest organizers and the Islamist group Hamas that rules in Gaza is part of the organizers - they decided, actually, to change that and to make today the big protest day because of the embassy opening. You know, with all the world's attention on the embassy, Gaza wants some of the attention, too. But there's a lot of little protests to try to pressure Israel to improve conditions in Gaza, which has been under a blockade by Israel and Egypt for over a decade and has very high unemployment here and many other very difficult conditions.

GREENE: Well, I - the death toll, as you've been reporting, I mean, has been going up, and it's called into question the tactics on both sides of this, right? So what do the two sides actually say about what they have been doing here?

ESTRIN: Well, Israel says that tens of thousands of Palestinians are gathering, many throwing rocks, firebombs and burning tires to obscure the soldiers' view. Israel says it's using live fire to keep people from damaging or crossing the (inaudible). All of this is a tactic by Hamas, which runs Gaza. And Palestinian officials say that at least 49 Palestinians have been killed in the last six weeks of protests. Now, Palestinians and rights groups have accused Israel of excessive force. And they say in addition to the death toll that more than a thousand people have been shot in these protests, including journalists and others who say they are not threatening anybody, not threatening soldiers.

GREENE: OK, hearing from Gaza, where there could be even bigger protests today. That's NPR's Daniel Estrin. Obviously, we'll be following this through the course of the day. Daniel, thank you so much.

ESTRIN: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: All right, so there, we got the view from Gaza. We also got the view from Jerusalem. Now let's get the perspective from Washington, D.C., with NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So how is this decision by President Trump to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem - how's it going over politically for the president back here at home?

LIASSON: This was one of the president's campaign promises, and following through on those promises is a big part of Donald Trump's brand. The move of the embassy was important to different parts of the president's base. The Christian right and conservative Jewish voters both cared deeply for different reasons about moving the embassy. It was also an important promise for some deep-pocketed donors whose help the president really needs this fall. Sheldon Adelson, a very big pro-Netanyahu donor, just wrote a $30 million check to a super PAC that is defending the Republican majority in the House this year.

MARTIN: OK. So while I've got you, I want to move away from Israel and turn to China for a second because President Trump has had some interesting things to say about making sure China doesn't lose too many jobs in this whole back-and-forth over trade. On Sunday, the president tweeted about getting the Chinese company ZTE, quote, "back in business fast," which does not sound very Trumpian. What's going on here?

LIASSON: (Laughter) Yes, that was a head-scratching tweet. ZTE is a huge electronics maker. It's the second-biggest telecommunications equipment maker in China. But they were banned from doing business in the U.S. because they were found to be violating U.S. sanctions against North Korea and Iran. And not only that, but the intelligence community said that ZTE phones could be intercepted and turned into listening devices, so they were a national security threat. They - the FBI and the CIA thought that ZTE could be using its technology to spy on U.S. consumers. But turns out ZTE uses a lot of American-made components, so last week, because they were fined and sanctioned, they announced that they would halt operating activities, and it looked like the company might go under.

MARTIN: So help us understand here. That's not what the Trump administration wanted?

LIASSON: (Laughter) Yes, well, this is - was - the tweet was very off-brand for Trump to talk about job losses in China. But it shows you how much leverage China has over Trump. Trump needs China both as a trading partner and as a diplomatic partner with North Korea. Despite his tough talk, Xi seems to be holding all the cards here. And there were big trade talks in Beijing. U.S. came home empty-handed. Then there were reports that China was already easing up on the North Korea sanctions. So now it looks like Trump is looking to ease sanctions, go easy on a Chinese company that violated the sanctions regime in Iran just as he's about to go after European companies for doing business with Iran.

MARTIN: A little confusing.

LIASSON: So try to figure that out.

MARTIN: Right, but also...

LIASSON: Yes, a little confusing.

MARTIN: But also, as you noted, it's also about American jobs. So he - by doing this, he can get credit in some way for making a conciliatory move towards China, but it also helps American workers who make the parts for that company.

LIASSON: Maybe. But mostly, it shows you that he's playing a weaker hand than he makes out.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson for us this morning. Hey, Mara, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "KOOL IN THE SUMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.