JERUSALEM — The windy road leading up to the city was decorated with fluttering American and Israeli flags on Monday as signs everywhere declared “Trump, Make Israel Great.” A popular soccer team even renamed itself: “Beitar Trump Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem is ready — sort of — for the official opening of the U.S. Embassy.
The inauguration will take place at the site of the new embassy, which is really the existing consulate, just with a spanking new plaque. President Trump will not attend but he will address the high-profile crowd, including his daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner and a host of political, religious and communal leaders, via live video linkup.
For most of Jerusalem’s residents, the wider Israeli public and the country’s leaders, it’s a cause for huge celebration.
At a celebratory breakfast in Jerusalem, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called Trump the “Churchill of the 21st century.”
“He has reversed Chamberlain’s policy of capitulation and teaches the world that “the landowner has returned,” said Shaked at an event attended by members of the visiting White House delegation. “Europe insists upon not learning from history. It closed its eyes to the strengthening of the Nazis; today it is choosing to close its eyes to the strengthening of Iran. In such a reality in particular, it is good that the leader of the free world is President Trump.”
A day earlier, at a special “Thank you America” event at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a crowd, including 250 visiting U.S. senators, congressmen, community and religious leaders that “tomorrow will be a historic day for our people and for our state.”
“President Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem affirms a great and simple truth: Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for the past three thousand years. It’s been the capital of our state for the past 70 years. It will remain our capital for all time,” said Netanyahu, who later hosted members of the official White House delegation at a celebratory dinner.
Israel feels vindicated by the administration’s decision to recognize its capital as Jerusalem. It declared sovereignty over the city 51 years ago following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but most countries do not recognize Israel’s rule over the city, where a third of the residents are Palestinian. And most states say their embassies will remain in Tel Aviv until Israelis and Palestinians reach some sort of peace agreement.
“Outside of the U.S. and a few other countries, most of the world is against this move,” said Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab faction in Israel’s parliament, who despite being invited to the opening ceremony is consciously objecting by boycotting the event.
“Most want to see peace created along the lines that existed in 1967,” he said. “This is a one-sided move that strengthens occupation and moves us further from peace.”
“This is a hostile act against international law and against the people of Palestine,” said Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization. “It places the U.S. on the side of the occupying power.”
Palestinians are planning to protest the move at events planned throughout Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israeli police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said that security forces were on high alert for what is expected to be a tense few days.
On Tuesday, Palestinians mark the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” a term used for the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians seven decades ago upon Israel’s creation. The day also draws large protests.
But the largest demonstrations will likely take place in the coastal enclave of Gaza, where there has already been several weeks of unrest, with some 49 Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers and more than 2,000 wounded.
In Jerusalem, those who arrived to celebrate the opening of the new embassy dismissed claims that the move undermines the chances for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Traveling with the official delegation, Senator Lindsey O. Graham said that now was the “right time” to move the embassy.
“It’s been U.S. policy since 1995 and if you have a problem then need to take it up with God,” said Graham, referring to legislation approved by Congress. The legislation included a waiver allowing presidents to delay the move by six months at a time, which has been used by successive presidents until now.
“In a fractured Middle East now is the time for America to have Israel’s back,” said Graham. “If there ever are two states then maybe the Palestinians will make east Jerusalem their capital, only time will tell.”
“We’ve had presidents who promised to move the embassy but not kept their promise and they were praised, now we have a president who has kept his promise and he is criticized,” said Alan Dershowitz, a prominent lawyer who lately has proven an advocate for the Trump administration.
He said he did not believe the move undercut the process of reaching peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Obama did that by not vetoing the U.N. resolution against Israeli settlements. Trump has revived the status quo and is ready to restart the process. But the Palestinians won’t get a state without negotiating,” said Dershowitz.
Also among those visiting are some prominent Christian Zionist and evangelical leaders who have been instrumental in shaping Trump’s Jerusalem policy. Some see the embassy move as fulfilling a divine prophecy.
Pastor Robert Jeffress, a Fox News contributor and megachurch Baptist preacher from Dallas, is scheduled to lead a prayer at the opening of Monday’s ceremony. Jeffress has caused controversy for disparaging views on other religions, particularly Islam.
But Mike Evans, an American Christian Zionist who runs the Friends of Zion center in Jerusalem and paid for the citywide banners celebrating Trump, says this is a “pragmatic move.”
“The embassy dedication is a statement of no longer tolerating evil and is a game changer for the Middle East,” he said.