News Analysis: Turmoil in Community Marks Debate over U.S. Embassy Move
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News Analysis: Turmoil in Community Marks Debate over U.S. Embassy Move

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Although publicly supportive of congressional initiatives to begin building a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem next year, many in the organized Jewish community are privately frustrated that their stance could damage the fledgling peace process.

Although some major organizations expressed immediate approval of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv, others voiced a more tepid response — followed by very carefully worded statements.

The varied reactions signaled the struggles many pro-Israel activists have gone through in the past week since presidential hopeful and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) unveiled his legislation last week at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

Dole and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) introduced the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Implementation Act into their respective houses of Congress last week.

The measure is likely to pass both houses easily, but not necessarily before Congress recesses in August. The bill would force the State Department to begin building an embassy in the capital city of Jerusalem next year. The ambassador would have to move in no later than 1999.

In a flurry of activity over the past week, Jewish organizations have staked out their positions on the bill.

Several powerful groups, including AIPAC, were quick to go on record supporting the initiative but others, such as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, were more cautions.

Most Jewish groups support the idea of the U.S. Embassy being located in a unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. But some, echoing the position of both the Israeli government and the Clinton administration, are concerned that such a move could undermine already troubled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Under the Declaration of Principles signed in September 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization agreed to put off the issue of Jerusalem until the final-status talks, which are scheduled to begin next year and end in 1999.

The reluctance of many normally vocal activists to speak on the record about the organized community’s grappling with the issue is telling.

“Our grass roots and policy say we have to support the bill, but they can’t say how strongly,” said one activist who requested anonymity.

Another activist said, “We can’t oppose the bill, but sometimes silence speaks volumes. The last thing we want is to give the PLO an excuse to walk away from the table.”

For its part, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee not only publicly supported the move, it also instructed its delegates to push actively for the bill during Capitol Hill visits last week.

“The question of if the U.S. moves its embassy is for the U.S. to decide,” said Neal Sher, AIPAC’s executive director. “We believe it should not have a negative impact on the peace process.”

“The only bill out there is the Dole bill and we’re supporting it,” Sher said.

Unlike AIPAC, NJCRAC, an umbrella group of local community relations councils and national Jewish organizations, did not endorse the Dole bill.

“We support the goal of the legislation,” NJCRAC said in a deliberately worded statement agreed to after three conference calls last week.

“We also support the Middle East peace process and reconciliation between Israel and her Arab neighbors,” the statement said.

In its press release accompanying the statement, NJCRAC further stated, “The umbrella body also cautioned the congressional leadership against engaging debate now on the timing of such a move.”

Member agencies and local community relations councils were urged to share the statement with their members of Congress. But unlike some issues, they were not asked to lobby aggressively on behalf of the initiative.

Supporters of the embassy move lashed out at NJCRAC for not supporting the bill.

“It’s outrageous. If they went to their membership and asked what they think about it, they might all be out of their jobs,” said one activist who requested anonymity.

But NJCRAC stood by its statement.

“We are perfectly confident that we went through as full a consultative process as possible,” said Martin Raffel, NJCRAC’s associate executive vice chairman.

Dole’s move, which forces the relocation of the embassy by cutting off State Department funds if it does not comply, caught many in the Jewish community and in Congress by surprise.

Dole’s bill comes on the heels of a congressional letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher sponsored by Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.).

That letter called on the administration to begin plans to move the embassy by the end of the final-status talks. The letter asked the secretary to report back to Congress on steps he was taking to implement the move.

“We were working with the State Department to formulate a proper and acceptable response when the issue was hijacked by Dole,” said one congressional aide who opposes the bill.

Israeli officials, though privately concerned about the timing of the initiative, echoed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s statement that the issue is an American political dispute and the Jerusalem is the eternal, undivided capital of Israel. Israelis officials said they plan to take no action on the Dole bill as it makes its way through Congress.

The Clinton administration has vehemently opposed the move and early on lobbied to keep Democrats from co-sponsoring the initiative.

Christopher said moving the embassy would so “serious damage” at “a very delicate time” in the peace process.

This week, White House spokesman Michael McCurry predicted that moving the embassy would “severely disrupt the peace process.”

“It’s a bad idea. It’s a bad idea because it is taking what is one of the most sensitive issues in the peace process and pronouncing a U.S. view summarily as the parties themselves are grappling with that issue under the terms of the Declaration of Principles,” McCurry told reporters.

However, supporters argue that Israel has the right to declare its own capital. Further, they say, the embassy would be built in western Jerusalem, which is undisputed Israeli land. The Palestinians claim eastern Jerusalem as the capital of an eventual state.

In an example of how many Jewish organizations are grappling with support for moving the embassy while at the same time fearing Committee has decided to avoid public comments on the legislation.

Although supportive of the NJCRAC statement, AJCommittee officials said they would not enter the fray.

In contrast, American Jewish Congress, which has been one of the most vocal supporters of the peace process, surprised many observers by endorsing the legislation immediately after it was introduced.

“We are confident that this legislation does not have an adverse impact on the peace process, that it should not and that it will not,” AJCongress President David Kahn and Executive Director Phil Baum wrote in a letter to members of Congress.

Only days later, Baum was called on to defend the AJCongress letter by angry members.

By “maintaining that there is nothing in the proposal inimical to the peace process,” the group “wanted to preclude the argument that adoption of this measure implied that the U.S. Congress had given up on or intended to compromise the peace process,” Baum said.

Other Jewish groups were more predictable in their responses. On the right of the communal spectrum, the Zionist Organization of America and Americans for a Safe Israel lined up in support of the bill. On the left, Americans for Peace Now and Project Nishma immediately opposed it.

B’nai B’rith International, the Anti-Defamation League and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America also supported the legislation.

“There can be no reasonable defense for the American government’s continual refusal to relocate” the embassy, the Orthodox Union said in a statement.

The Conference of Presidents, whose leaders are on a mission to the former Soviet Union, have issued no formal statement.

But Lester Pollack, outgoing chairman of the umbrella organization, said last week, “I imagine the community would support” Dole’s initiative.

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