SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee, part of the nation's delegation in Jerusalem Monday to mark the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, called the move "a long overdue recognition of history and reality."
Lee, R-Utah, said the mood at the opening of the new embassy was "optimistic" and "upbeat," and described the deadly protests sparked by the controversial move as "unfortunate" and "tragic."
"It is unacceptable that people would choose to respond with violence to a move that is as innocuous as the United States moving its embassy to the actual capital of the host country. Think about how odd this is," he said.
A lot of people "are very excited this is happening," Lee said. "Sure there are naysayers. But those naysayers are those same people who wouldn't want the state of Israel in existence in the first place."
Jerusalem "is, in fact, Israel's eternal capital," he said during an interview with KSL Newsradio just before the ceremony began. "Pretending otherwise isn't going to fix anything."
In a news release, the senator said he continues "to hope for peace and longtime stability between Israelis and Palestinians, but the U.S. could no longer wait to do the right thing in recognizing the nation's rightful capital."
A photo tweeted by Lee showed him sitting at a table with senior White House advisors Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, as well as the other GOP senators on the trip, Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Dean Heller of Nevada.
"Honored to be here in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, on this historic day. Thanks for the photo, @IvankaTrump!" Lee said in the tweet.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, spoke from the floor of the U.S. Senate about the new embassy and Israel's 70th anniversary, urging Americans to back President Donald Trump's efforts against Iran, one of Israel's "many enemies who seek its destruction."
"I applaud President Trump's decision to commemorate this historic anniversary with the opening of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem," Hatch said, adding that "Israel desperately needs allies."
The race to succeed Hatch, who is retiring from the Senate, has been stirred up by a tweet from the most prominent candidate, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
In the tweet Sunday, Romney, a Mormon, had harsh words for an evangelical pastor who delivered a blessing at the embassy ceremony.
"Robert Jeffress says 'you can't be saved by being a Jew,' and 'Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.' He's said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem," Romney tweeted.
But Romney's Republican primary opponent, Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, called a news conference at the state Capitol to disagree.
"I stand with the president. We should celebrate what's happening not focus on the disagreements between individuals," Kennedy said, calling Mormons a forgiving people who recognize there are many who do not embrace their faith.
"I believe it's important for us to let bygones be bygones," the state lawmaker said. "The historic event is more important than statements made years ago by an individual who is participating in the ceremony."
Kennedy praised Trump for following through on his promise to move the embassy and said the president should "be able to pick who says the invocation for that event."
But the Democratic candidate in the Senate race, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, said in a statement, "The Trump administration should not be providing a platform to someone with a record of hateful speech and bigotry."
Correction: An earlier version misspelled Sen. Lindsey Graham's first name as Lindsay.