No private citizen should fund the building of our embassy in Israel

In Jerusalem this week, the talk of the town is President Trump’s decision to open a new U.S. Embassy on May 14, possibly to be funded by the generous contributions of a private citizen. If you want a bricks-and-mortar memorial to campaign promises slain in service to a presidency, it’s the current U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

For years, presidential candidates have supported moving the embassy to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, only to postpone the decision. Such a move, it was argued, would undermine the peace process, antagonize Arab governments, prejudge borders and incite riots. President Trump responded to these concerns with a shrug.

{mosads}In a land where real estate wars are, well, biblical, location can be expensive. A new embassy with all of the necessary security accoutrements will strain diplomatic budgets that have already been sliced and diced by the Trump administration.

But a bailout is in sight. According to the Jerusalem Post, American businessman and casino owner Sheldon Adelson has offered to fund the new embassy’s construction. This is the same Mr. Adelson who spends lavishly on Republican and conservative super PACs and the defeat of many Democrats.

I fully support moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and during my time in the U.S. House, I cosponsored the resolutions mandating such action. But having any private citizen, leaning right, left or anywhere in between, fund the construction of an embassy is wrong. It’s even dangerous.

First, it would be a virtual billboard for the privatization of foreign policy. Foreign policy shouldn’t just “stop at the water’s edge,” it should soar high above any reliance on private interest. Public diplomacy is just that. It should be public. Save the public-private partnerships for building bridges in America, not for building diplomatic bridges in foreign capitals.

Second, at the outset it seems a de-facto — and obvious — conflict of interest. Our foreign policy must be universally regarded as a pure reflection of our national interest. That perception is tainted when the walls of an embassy are furnished by a donor with a prominent ideological bent.

This proposal even diminishes the relationship between the United States and Israel. It sends this message: For all other countries, America’s taxpayers will fund our presence. Unfortunately, we can’t afford Jerusalem. But the good news is that we know a guy with deep pockets who can pick up the tab. Such a deal!

Finally, the notion should offend the sensibilities of people even across the political spectrum. Had Democratic mega-donors such as George Soros or Tom Steyer or Haim Saban stepped up to fund the construction of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, the far-right would have smacked them down instantly.

One former U.S. diplomat I met in Jerusalem noted that private contributions are used to renovate or improve distressed properties. Even that should make us squirm, and it doesn’t compare to the magnitude of hundreds of millions of dollars for a single project.

What next? “The American (Express) Embassy in Italy”? “The AT&T U.S. Embassy in Beijing?” Or “The U.S. Embassy At Facebook Field in Moscow”?

Our embassies are no places for bidding wars. The U.S. flag isn’t a stadium banner presented thanks to the good people who brew our beer, process our finances and sell our products. That would be cheap and tawdry, and would lower diplomacy to the worst of all suspicions that America, through its diplomatic missions, is bought and paid for.

After a week in Israel, speaking to government officials, retired generals, academics and analysts, I heard repeated concerns that America’s role in the Middle East seems to be slipping. It would be better to focus on rebuilding our place in the region than passing the cup to build an embassy in Jerusalem.

That embassy, it’s been said, is a vital symbol. And it’s all the more reason not to tarnish it with anyone’s money, no matter how generous or well-intended it might be.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April 2018.

Tags Donald Trump embassy Foreign policy Israel Sheldon Adelson Steve Israel

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