Moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — once a bread- and-butter issue for the Jewish community — has now become embroiled in both American political and Jewish disputes over the peace process.
Although most Jews believe that the embassy ultimately should be moved to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, some believe that the timing of such a move is critical and should not disrupt the peace process.
The Clinton administration, concerned about the implications of such a move for the peace process, has threatened to veto pending legislation on the issue.
With these divergent opinions in mind, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations came together last week to try to reach a consensus on current legislation that would require the United States to begin construction next year on a new embassy in Jerusalem.
Under the legislation introduced by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-kan.), the U.S. ambassador would move in by 1999, when the final status talks between Israel and the PLO are scheduled to be completed.
Fifty-four senators, including 15 Democrats, have signed onto Dole’s bill. In the House, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has introduced similar legislation.
After an hour and a half debate, the Conference of Presidents declared its unanimous support for moving the embassy, but withheld its endorsement of Dole’s measure.
The umbrella group said in a statement that is supports the “objective of the legislation to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.” It also urged the Congress and the administration to work together to find a “mutually agreeable formula for bringing the U.S. Embassy to its rightful location in Jerusalem.”
The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council took a similar stance last month.
As quickly as the Conference of Presidents agreed to withhold its explicit endorsement of the Dole bill, new intracommunal debates erupted.
Any doubt about whether the Conference of Presidents had, in fact, endorsed the Dole bill was resolved when the group issued two consecutive statements to the media last Friday.
The first headline declared: “presidents Conference Supports Dole-Inouye Bill on Moving U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.”
Hoenlein said the headline did not reflect the decision of the conference, which had only endorsed the objective of the legislation, but not the bill explicitly.
After a minor furor erupted in the Jewish organizational world, with some expressing anger that the headline went further than the statement, a corrected version was issued two hours later.
The new headline read: “Conference of Presidents Takes Stand on Dole-Inouye Bill.” The headline referred to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who has co- sponsored the bill.
But the debate over the role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, continues.
AIPAC, which has led the charge for the bill on Capitol Hill, said the Conference of Presidents’ statement would not prevent it from continuing to ask members of Congress to co-sponsor the Dole bill.
“The statement does not suggest not to support the Dole bill. That’s the bottom line,” said Neal Sher, AIPAC’s executive director.
“There is only one initiative out there,” Sher said of the Dole proposal.
For his part, Hoenlein said that now that the conference has issued a statement, AIPAC’s lobbying on this issue is a “a gray area.”
Hoenlein said the conference would probably take up the issue of AIPAC’s lobbying at future date.
“This is a question that we will have to take up and will have to be resolved,” he said.
“We need to be careful when using a tremendous resource like our relationships with Capitol Hill to avoid sending a confusing message.”
Americans for Peace Now, which has lobbied members against the initiative, labeled AIPAC’s decision to continuing explicit support for the bill “unfortunate.”
“I certainly hope [AIPAC] will honor the spirit of the conference,” said Linda Heller Kamm, co-president of Americans for Peace Now.
“If anyone spins [the statement] as support for Dole, there will be an intifada in the Jewish community. There was no consensus,” said another Jewish activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Alluding to AIPAC’s position, Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of NJCRAC, said “Any agency that wishes to operate on the basis of consensus of the community would not be endorsing the Dole legislation because there was no consensus on Dole.”
“We should be working for bipartisan cooperation and cooperation between the White House and Capitol Hill,” he said.
When Dole first introduced his bill, many activists thought it would breeze through Congress.
However, with the Clinton administration vehemently opposed to the bill and many Democrats strongly opposed to the measure, the initiative has stalled on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has even threatened to filibuster the legislation if Dole brings it to the floor.
Jewish activists, meanwhile, are feverishly trying to prevent Jerusalem from becoming a divisive political issue.
And the Conference of Presidents is hoping to play the role of mediator.
In a meeting with the conference’s leadership Monday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said he would recommend a presidential veto if the measure ever gets to President Clinton’s desk.
Christopher has “strong, substantive and constitutional objections to the legislation,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive rice chairman of the conference, said after the meeting with Christopher.
In a letter sent to Dole on Tuesday, Christopher wrote, “I will recommend that the president veto” the bill if it passes Congress.
The bill is “ill-advised and potentially very damaging to the success of the peace process,” Christopher said in the letter.
“There are few other issues that are more likely to undermine negotiations and complicate the chances for peace than premature focus on Jerusalem,” Christopher also said.
Emphasizing the administration’s position that Jerusalem should be kept on the back burner, Christopher cited the veto last month of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli land expropriations in Jerusalem.
In addition, Christopher wrote, the legislation “would unconstitutionally invade exclusive presidential authorities” by compelling “the president to build and open an embassy at a particular site for foreign policy reasons.”
A Senate Republican aide responded to Christopher’s letter, saying it is “crystal clear that everyone who believes the embassy should be moved to Jerusalem should look to Congress because the administration will not act.”
One Jewish supporter of the Dole bill called Christopher’s letter “oxymoronic.”
By sending this letter, Christopher has thrust the embassy issue and Jerusalem back into the limelight, this supporter said.
Meanwhile, activists close to the issue sounded a pessimistic note about the chances for compromise.
“Hopefully, something could be worked out” between the administration and Congress but “there were no specific proposals offered” in the meeting with Christopher, Hoenlein said.