JERUSALEM (AP) – The entrance to the new residence of the US ambassador in Jerusalem has no plaque, no stars and stripes visible, and no official listing as a notable foreign asset.
The US ambassador’s official residence is a rented and temporary one, officials said, safe after two years of house-hunting in the wake of then-President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to move the US embassy in Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Ambassador Tom Niedes moved into a sumptuously renovated villa in the lush German colony of West Jerusalem sometime last spring. Local real estate agents estimated it to be valued at around $23 million, and its owner and embassy confirmed that it is being leased as the official residence of the US envoy.
Emek Refaim Street is the latest stop on a more than three-year stay in tension-stricken Jerusalem from the seaside cliffs north of Tel Aviv to the home of the US ambassador. The visit reflects the divisive legacy of the Trump administration and the reluctance of President Joe Biden – who will visit the region next month – to sever ties with Israel over the issue.
Trump upheld decades of US policy in 2017 by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, drawing praise from many Israelis and angering Palestinians.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and did not engage it in an internationally recognized move. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state. Most countries have embassies in Tel Aviv due to a long-running dispute.
Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv, as well as the storied residence of the US ambassador. Under various presidents, the envoy was previously housed in a five-bedroom seaside complex built on an acre (about one and a half hectares) of land that Israel gave to the United States shortly after independence in 1948.
The previous residence was a social center for the relationship between two close associates. It was known for the Fourth of July, when thousands of specially invited guests would watch the sunset and fireworks over the Mediterranean Sea.
Trump’s move ended all that. According to official Israeli records, the United States sold the property for over $67 million. The State Department declined to release key details of the sale, but Israeli business newspaper The Globes identified the buyer as one of Trump’s biggest contributors: US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who died in 2021.
The cliffside compound appeared to have changed little in recent days from the outside of the walls. Two Israeli flags waved from the flagpole in the sea breeze. A spokesman for the Adelson family declined to comment.
The decision to sell the residence appears to have been aimed at preventing any future president from reversing the embassy move, which Biden has long rejected.
But it also forced American diplomats stationed in the area – most of whom continued to work in Tel Aviv – to begin an arduous search for new excavations.
When Niedes arrived last December, the plight of the “homeless ambassador” was the talk of diplomatic circles. There simply weren’t many options for a sprawling and secure complex to serve as the official residence of the US ambassador in overcrowded Jerusalem.
In most countries, the official residence is not only the ambassador’s home, but also a venue for official ceremonies and social gatherings. A cramped apartment just won’t do.
Nides initially moved to the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem, a very substantial address but not suitable living quarters for entertainment. This past spring, he moved into property in the German Colony, one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
According to the embassy, the US is leasing it and has informed Israel that the property will be the official residence for the US envoy. Other terms of the arrangement have not been made public, but there are no plans to move the ambassador to another site. Authorities in both countries as well as the owner declined to comment on the value of the property or its monthly rent.
If the intention was to keep the housing low-profile, that too was over. On June 8, Niedes tweeted a picture from “the new coffee shop in his neighborhood in the German colony”. His residence is surrounded by a long white fence and is fitted with security cameras. According to local shop owners, guards can often be seen. When a gate opens, one can glimpse the look-loose parking area and courtyard.
Ariel Cohen, the legal counsel for the owner of Blue Marble Ltd., does not dispute local reports that the company has spent 50 million shekels (about $14.5 million) on the historic restoration. Her father, Avi Ruimi, grew up in a German colony and founded the company, which specializes in historic restorations and owns several other addresses across the street.
Blue Marble bought the property in 2004. Construction lasted six years and ended in 2020, as it became clear the US ambassador would need a new home.
“We knew it was a possibility,” Cohen said in an interview. She declined to comment on the signing process but called the contract an “amazing milestone.” She said the residence itself is about 570 square meters (about 6,000 square feet) with a second building almost double the size.
A gallery on the company’s website states that one building is comprised of two apartments and commercial space. The second is “a beautiful private villa”. A portfolio on Blue Marble’s web site shows a stunningly renovated interior with a modern kitchen, fixtures and high ceilings.
Local media have reported that the property dates back to 1930 and was built by a wealthy Palestinian family. West Jerusalem had several upscale Palestinian neighborhoods known for their stone villas prior to the 1948 war, when most Palestinians on that side of the city fled or were driven out.
Before 1948, the residence was home to unmarried British police officers during the British Mandate, and over the years it has also been used as a fire station, school and flower shop.
It is unclear whether Biden will visit the residence during his brief stay in Israel next month.
His discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders are likely to focus on another consequence of Trump’s embassy move – the closure of a US consulate in Jerusalem that used to serve Palestinians.
Palestinians have called on the Biden administration to fulfill its pledge to reopen the consulate, which would bolster their claim on part of the city and help mend US-Palestinian ties broken during the Trump years.
Israel strongly opposes reopening the consulate for the same reason – another real estate dispute in a region where they seem to multiply with each passing year.