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News Analysis: to Move or Not to Move? Embassy Debate Rages Again

Should the United States move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Once again, the issue is dividing politicians, diplomats and activists.

For years, pro-Israel forces have joined Congress in urging four presidents to move the U.S. Embassy as an acknowledgment that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

Like most countries, the United States has never officially recognized Israel’s decision after the 1967 Six-Day War to declare a unified Jerusalem as its capital. With its embassy in Tel Aviv, the U.S. government maintains consulates in Jerusalem.

Although nearly unanimous in their support for such a move in the past, some pro-Israel forces – along with the Israeli and U.S. governments – are now urging caution.

The issue, they say, is complicated by the peace process under way between Israel and the Palestinians.

A move to Jerusalem at this time, according to many pro-Israel activists here, could spell the end to the delicate Israeli-Palestinian talks.

These activists worry that moving the embassy now could force the Palestinians to walk away from the bargaining table.

At the same time, however, these activists express concern that keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv could strengthen the Palestine Liberation Organization’s hand when the final status of Jerusalem becomes an issue at the negotiating table.

Opponents of the peace talks with the Palestinians, meanwhile, have seized on the Jerusalem issue, hoping that a move of the embassy would cause the peace talks to falter.

With this in mind, two of the Senate’s most pro-Israel legislators entered the political minefield last week when they urged the Clinton administration to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) began circulating a letter last week to enlist support from their colleagues.

In the letter intended for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the senators declared that the “U.S. Embassy belongs in Jerusalem.”

“Israel is the only nation in which our embassy is not located in the functioning capital. This is an inappropriate message to our friends in Israel and, more importantly, a dangerous message to Israel’s enemies,” they said in the letter.

And even though the senators are calling for a move, their letter seeks to slow the pace on the embassy issue by deferring the move, urging action “no later than” May 1999, When Israel and the PLO are scheduled to complete their final- status talks.

“It would be most appropriate for planning to begin now to ensure such a move no later than the agreements on `permanent status’ take effect and the transition period has ended, which according to the Declaration of Principles is scheduled for May 1999,” the letter states.

The United States purchased a plot of land in Jerusalem in October that many speculated would serve as the site of a future embassy.

At the time, State Department officials refused to specify whether the land was for an embassy or a new consulate. The land would be for “diplomatic use” where a “very senior diplomat” would live, they said.

By presenting the issue within the time frame of the final-status negotiations, the senators are hoping to head off those are advocating an immediate relocation of the embassy, observers and aides to the senators said.

The senators’ letter seeks to “differentiate between the people who genuinely want to be part of the struggle [to move the embassy] and a handful of rabble- rousers trying to use this as an issue to derail the peace process,” said a senior aide to Moynihan.

The aide said the senator was particularly concerned about Jewish activists who are lobbying members of Congress to push the issue now.

The letter recalls Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s recent address to the Knesset in which he said “Jerusalem will not be open to negotiation.”

“United States policy should be equally clear and unequivocal,” the letter states. “The search for peace can only be hindered by raising utterly unrealistic hopes about the future status of Jerusalem among the Palestinians and understandable fears among the Israeli population that their capital may once again be divided by cinder block and barbed wire.”

Israel Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reiterated the Israeli position that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of the Jewish state at a news conference prior to a speech before the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council annual plenum here Sunday.

Although he refused to address directly congressional activity regarding the U.S. Embassy, he said that it is “our obligation” to the Palestinians to hold off discussions about Jerusalem until final-status talks.

From the Palestinians’ perspective, the embassy is a “make or break issue for the peace process,” according to Nabil Sha’ath, the PLO’s chief negotiator and minister for planning.

Speaking via satellite to the NJCRAC plenum, Sha’ath said that moving the embassy would “destroy confidence in the United States as a real sponsor” of the peace process.

Sha’ath called for a “shared but not divided” Jerusalem to serve as the “capital of two future countries.”

Congress has tried to force four presidents to move the embassy. Although many presidential candidates promised during their campaigns to support a move of the embassy, they backed down when they got to office in deference to the peace process and in deference to U.S. relations with Arab states.

As recently as last week, the administration argued against taking public stands on moving the embassy.

Martin Indyk, a special assistant to President Clinton for the Middle East and ambassador to Israel-designate, urged senators at his confirmation hearings not to tackle the issue of Jerusalem.

Any move now “would explode the peace process,” Indyk said.

“Frankly, it would put us out of business as a facilitator of those negotiations.

The parties themselves have agreed to deal with this issue in May of next year,” he said. “I think we should not take any action until we’ve seen the results of those negotiations.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) agreed with Indyk at the hearing.

“To throw any kind of a time bomb into these negotiations at this point would be unwise,” she said.

But Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.), who chaired the hearing, said he supported a more imminent move.

“For people to be able to name their own capital is a very modest portion of sovereignty,” the senator said.

Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) has also joined the fray. Speaking at a recent B’nai B’rith board of governors meeting, the senator said, “Since there never is a good time to do it, now is a good time to do it.”

Reps. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, are apparently planning to circulate in the House a letter similar to the Moynihan-D’Amato one later this month.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich also chimed in on the embassy debate recently, telling Israeli television that he “strongly favors moving the American Embassy.”

“I think it is absurd for is to single out Israel as a country where we define what we think the capital should be,” he said.

Some pro-Israel activists said the Moynihan-D’Amato letter is important in that it takes into consideration the peace process and leaves open a variety of options. What is essential, many said, is that the administration make a commitment to moving the embassy.

Steve Grossman, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said he “enthusiastically” supports the senators’ initiative.

“The unity of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a matter of the highest principle and priority to the Jewish people and to all friends of Israel,” he said.

At least one activist, however, said the senators’ letter did not go far enough.

“Move the embassy now,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

“Who knows what it will be like in five years,” he said of the Middle East.

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