WASHINGTON (Mar. 5)
President Bush telephoned an American Jewish leader Monday afternoon to calm mounting concern in American Jewish circles and in Israel over remarks he made last weekend about the status of united Jerusalem.
Bush appeared to imply at a news conference Saturday in Palm Springs, Calif., that the United States opposes the settlement of Jews in East Jerusalem, an area Israel annexed in 1967.
But on Monday afternoon, the president assured Seymour Reich that his administration supports the right of “Jews as well as others” to live in a “united Jerusalem,” in the “context of a negotiated settlement,” according to a statement released by the White House.
Reich, who is chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, confirmed Monday evening that the call had taken place and said the president’s comments had been “reassuring.”
But earlier in the day, it appeared that the issue might exacerbate tensions between the United States and Israel at a time when Washington is trying to persuade the Jewish state to accept a compromise formula on negotiations with Palestinian Arabs.
Reich said that during a morning conference call of members of the Conference of Presidents, there had been “extreme concern about a perception of change in U.S. policy.”
“We were concerned there was a linkage of East Jerusalem with settlements in the West Bank,” he said.
The controversy erupted when Bush was asked, during a joint news conference Saturday with Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, whether the United States was equivocating over its policy of not allowing U.S. aid to be used in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“My position is that the foreign policy of the United States says we do not believe that there should be new settlements in the West Bank or East Jerusalem,” Bush responded.
RESTRICTION ON U.S. FUNDS
The United States has consistently opposed the building of additional Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the president’s remarks were believed to be the first time the U.S. government has taken a stand on Jewish settlement of East Jerusalem, which Israel regards as an inseparable part of the capital.
Bush’s remarks, broadcast by the Cable News Network, drew a strong response Monday from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who addressed a delegation from the State of Israel Bonds Organization visiting Jerusalem.
“There is no settlement in Jerusalem, which is part of Israel and will never be divided again,” Shamir told the Bonds leaders.
“Jerusalem is not a subject for negotiations,” he said, “and we will not agree to any action which puts in question the status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the heart and soul of the Jewish people.”
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler explained at her daily briefing Monday that the U.S. position has always been that Jerusalem should remain united, but that its final status must be decided through negotiations.
She said that the United States currently bars the use of its funds in East Jerusalem and that such a restriction would apply to the $400 million in loan guarantees the United States has offered to provide Israel so that it can build housing for Soviet immigrants.
Those positions were reiterated by Bush in his telephone call to Reich later in the day. According to the White House statement, “the president expressed his administration’s support for proposed housing investment guarantees, provided the United States and Israel can work out assurances that satisfy the United States on settlement activity.”
How the U.S. condition squares with Israeli intentions is unclear. Shamir told reporters Monday that Israel wants “to have as many Soviet Jewish immigrants in Jerusalem as possible.”
He added that there is no distinction between East and West Jerusalem. “For us,” he said, “there is one Yerushalayim, the capital of Israel.”
(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)