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GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson could help pay for the US embassy in Jerusalem

The new embassy will open in May of this year, officials say.

Business executive Sheldon Adelson attends the presidential debate between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When President Donald Trump announced in December he was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and planned to move the US embassy there, it left open questions of when it would actually happen, how much it would cost, and where the money would come from.

We’re beginning to learn some of the potential answers, and they’re emphatically not what you’d have expected.

Let’s start with the money side. Four unnamed officials told the Associated Press that State Department attorneys were looking into the legality of accepting private donations to help pay for the construction of the new US government building. The likeliest donor? Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire known for his stridently pro-Israel views and extensive financial support for the Republican Party.

Adelson offered to help fund the embassy back in December, around the same time Trump made his controversial announcement.

Kathy Bethany, who used to oversee cost management at the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations at the State Department, told the AP that she didn’t know of any other time when the US government had accepted private money to fund an embassy during her tenure.

“Would we be beholden to putting their name on the building? I’ve never heard of that,” Bethany said.

If the lawyers decide the government can accept private money, other members of the Jewish American or evangelical Christian communities could potentially aid the Trump administration in building the new embassy. That, in turn, could fuel new anger in a region already on edge because of a belief that Trump has made US policy far more pro-Israel due to political pressures back home.

The embassy move is also going to happen a lot sooner than previously thought.

On Friday, the State Department announced that the Jerusalem embassy will open in May, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding. It will be located in the building that houses current consular operations in Jerusalem, and they plan to relocate to a separate annex by the end of 2019.

Trump’s initial decision to move the embassy placed him squarely in the middle of the decades-long conflict over Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state but that Israel says will remain under its permanent control.

The fact that the move is now set to happen in a few months — and could potentially be paid for by one of the most controversial political figures in the Mideast — means an already risky decision could become far, far more dangerous.

The casino mogul is known for his strong support of Israel

One reason Adelson is problematic is that he’s a well-known conservative figure who has aligned himself with right-wing Israeli and American politicians for decades. (His ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are so close that Adelson funded the launch of a daily newspaper with stridently pro-Netanyahu coverage.)

The casino mogul, who has donated tens of millions of dollars to Republican candidates over the years, wields outsize power over the GOP.

In 2014, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used the phrase “occupied territories” to refer to the West Bank and other areas where Palestinians live in Israel that are administered under Israeli control. Adelson and other staunch supporters of Israel object to the term, and the governor later visited him in his hotel to personally apologize.

There’s also the fact that allowing a private US citizen to pay to build a US government building is extremely rare and would be a departure from historical precedent.

Trump, however, has complained about the high cost of the new US embassy in London, so it’s not completely unexpected that he would be open to accepting private funds.

It’s not yet known when the State Department lawyers will complete their investigation into the legality of the offer. What is clear is that Trump officials seem to want to move on this fast.