WASHINGTON — Sheldon G. Adelson, one of the most hawkish supporters of Israel among American Jews, has offered to help fund the construction of a new American Embassy in Jerusalem, according to the State Department, which on Friday said it was reviewing whether it could legally accept the donation.
The total price tag to build the new embassy to replace the current one in Tel Aviv is estimated at around $500 million, according to one former State Department official. While private donors have previously paid for renovations to American ambassadors’ overseas residences, Mr. Adelson’s contribution would be likely to far surpass those gifts — and could further strain American diplomacy in the Middle East.
Before the embassy is built, the Trump administration plans to open a temporary one in Jerusalem. On Friday, it said that it was accelerating the projected opening in time to mark the 70th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel on May 14.
Even some of Mr. Adelson’s allies expressed concern that if the administration accepts his offer for the permanent embassy, it could be seen as a well-heeled financial contributor effectively privatizing — and politicizing — American foreign policy.
Mr. Adelson, who has been a vocal supporter of the contentious plan to move the embassy, is not merely a philanthropist; he is one of the most prominent players in Israeli-American relations. He is a conservative force in American politics, a donor to President Trump, a longtime patron of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the owner of Israel’s largest-circulation daily newspaper.
“I’m concerned that people will think that this is being done because of a group of people — evangelicals and Jews — who care about it and not because it’s the U.S. government that cares about it,” said Morton A. Klein, who runs the Zionist Organization of America, a nonprofit group that is funded partly by Mr. Adelson. “It should be crystal-clear that this is the U.S. government making the decision to move it.”
Through a representative, Mr. Adelson declined to comment on Friday. His offer of a donation was first reported by The Associated Press.
Steve Goldstein, the under secretary for public diplomacy, said State Department lawyers began looking several weeks ago at whether it was legal to accept a private donation to build an embassy, a process that continues. He said the department was not currently negotiating with any private citizen for a donation, and that a new embassy building would take seven to 10 years to construct.
It was not clear whether private donors had ever helped with the financial costs to build an American embassy. Patrick Kennedy, who last year retired from the State Department, where he served as under secretary for management, said donors in the past had contributed millions of dollars to refurbish the palatial United States ambassadors’ residences in London, Paris, Rome and Tokyo.
“As long as a donor passes an ethics and background check, we’ll take their money if they’re willing to give it. There’s no problem there,” Mr. Kennedy said in an interview on Friday.
For years, Mr. Adelson, a Las Vegas casino mogul, has pushed the United States government to move its embassy to Jerusalem, the disputed capital that both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their own. With an estimated net worth of $40 billion, Mr. Adelson donated heavily to Mr. Trump’s campaign and gave $5 million to the committee organizing the president’s inauguration festivities, the largest such contribution ever.
Mr. Trump vowed during his campaign that, if elected, he would “fairly quickly” move the embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. In December, he announced that he would formally and officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy there.
In a speech on Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Mr. Trump drew enthusiastic applause when he said he had defied “incredible” pressure to move the embassy — what he considered the right thing to do.
“You know, every president campaigned on, ‘We’re going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,’ everybody, for many presidents, you’ve been reading it, and then they never pulled it off, and I now know why,” Mr. Trump said in his fiery speech to conservatives.
“I was hit by more countries and more pressure and more people calling, begging me, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it.’ I said, ‘We have to do it, it’s the right thing to do,’” the president said.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Friday. But a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition welcomed the plan on the temporary embassy.
“I would like to congratulate Donald Trump, the President of the US @POTUS on his decision to transfer the US Embassy to our capital on Israel’s 70th Independence Day,” Israel Katz, the minister of transportation and intelligence, wrote on Twitter. “There is no greater gift than that! The most just and correct move. Thanks friend!”
Already furious over Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinian leaders have declared that they will no longer accept an American monopoly on brokering a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
The timing of the embassy move may only amplify Palestinian outrage. For the Palestinians, Israel’s 70th anniversary also marks 70 years of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes and became refugees during the hostilities leading up to, and the war surrounding, Israel’s creation in 1948.
“The decision of the U.S. administration to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to choose the anniversary of the Nakba of the Palestinian people for carrying out this step expresses a flagrant violation of the law,” Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a veteran Palestinian negotiator, said in a statement on Friday.
Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank, said he did not believe that the accelerated move would have dramatic consequences. But, he added, “this will increase the negative feelings toward the United States and the notion that it is too biased toward Israel.”
During a trip to Israel last month, Vice President Mike Pence predicted that the new embassy in Jerusalem would open by the end of 2019.
But Mr. Goldstein said the move was now scheduled to happen in mid-May, when Ambassador David M. Friedman will relocate to an American consular office in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood that will temporarily serve as the United States’ main diplomatic post in Israel.
Mr. Adelson is a longtime patron of Mr. Netanyahu. He has financed the newspaper Israel Hayom in an apparent attempt to help Mr. Netanyahu come to power and remain there.
Israel Hayom began publishing in 2007, when Mr. Netanyahu was still the leader of the opposition, and has deeply cut into the advertising base and readership of its main competitor, Yedioth Ahronoth, which has often been sharply critical of Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Adelson’s offer to help fund a new embassy may have more to do with his staunchly pro-Israel stance and his relationship with Mr. Trump than his ties with Mr. Netanyahu. Those relations may have cooled as a result of the Israeli police’s corruption investigations into Mr. Netanyahu, one of which directly involves his actions in the newspaper rivalry.
Mr. Netanyahu was recorded in meetings negotiating mutual benefits with an old foe, Arnon Mozes, who is the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth. The prime minister is accused of offering to help Yedioth Ahronoth financially in return for more positive coverage — including by curtailing the circulation of Israel Hayom, and limiting its weekend supplement.
Mr. Adelson has been questioned at least once by the Israeli authorities in connection with the case. The police have recommended charging Mr. Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
While Israelis warmly welcomed the Trump administration’s recognition in December of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, analysts said the embassy move in May was unlikely to improve Mr. Netanyahu’s fortunes in the long term. In interviews, many Israelis said they had not even realized that the Americans did not consider Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital.
Mr. Klein, of the Zionist Organization of America, described Mr. Adelson as “very excited” when he was first told by Mr. Trump that the embassy would be moved to Jerusalem.
“It is a critically important issue to Sheldon Adelson,” Mr. Klein said in an interview on Friday.
The Arnona building where the temporary American Embassy will be housed, and the land adjacent to it, roughly straddles the seam between West Jerusalem, where mostly Israelis live, and East Jerusalem, which is a largely Arab community. That would make it ideal for serving both Israeli and Palestinian populations, Mr. Kennedy said.
The United States has an option to purchase land adjacent to the Arnona building, a parcel that is big enough to handle an embassy, Mr. Kennedy said. Leases now in effect are likely to delay the transfer of the property until at least 2020, he said.
Embassies can cost anywhere from $150 million to nearly $1 billion to build. The one in Jerusalem is likely to cost somewhere in the middle of that range — about $500 million — because it does not need the housing, warehouse or security functions of some of the most expensive buildings, such as those in Baghdad and Kabul, Mr. Kennedy said.
Some staff members at the American Embassy could remain in Tel Aviv, Israel’s business center.
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