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Congress Expects to Pass Bill to Move Embassy by May 1999

When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin comes to Capitol Hill to celebrate Jerusalem 3000 later this month, Congressional leaders hope to hand him a gift – legislation to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) introduced a new version of his bill in the Senate last week requiring the State Department to move the embassy by May 31, 1999.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was planning to introduce the new bill in the House as early as this week, aides say.

Israelis and Palestinians are scheduled to conclude final status talks, including the issue of Jerusalem, by May 1999.

The new version of the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act does not include one of the original bill’s most controversial provisions – requiring groundbreaking on the new embassy in 1996.

The earlier version, introduced in May, had lacked support for passage, and invited a threatened veto by the White House which feared its potential impact on the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Both Dole and Gingrich pledged to bring the new measure up for a vote before Rabin and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert come to the Capitol Rotunda Oct. 25 to celebrate Jerusalem 3000. Both leaders have yet to decide whether to hold hearings on the measure.

With 61 cosponsors, passage of the new bill is all but assured. Without hearing, the Senate could vote as early as this week.

Among the cosponsors is Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a staunch critic of the original version.

“This is a bipartisan bill that solves the problems with the earlier version,” said David Luchins, a senior Moynihan aide.

“All of us in the Senate are aware of the possible impact our actions could have on the peace process in the Middle East. We want the peace process to proceed,” Dole said on the Senate floor when introducing the measure. “In my view the United States does not have to wait for the end of final status talks to begin the process of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.”

While the new bill has not yet won the support of the Clinton administration, many Jewish groups that were skeptical of the earlier version have embraced the measure.

The bill recognizes Jerusalem as the “capital of the state of Israel” and that it should “remain an undivided city.”

Americans for Peace Now, which led the charge against the earlier version, arguing that it would derail the peace process, has decided “not to oppose” the new version.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has not yet taken a final position, according to Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman. But he expects the proposal to be widely accepted, he said, adding that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is “something we’ve supported for 40 years.”

The Conference of Presidents did not endorse the earlier version, and instead called on the administration and Congress to work together to forge a compromise.

Like Dole, Hoenlein said he was “disappointed” that the Clinton administration, which has opposed legislation on the issue, “has made no effort” to work out a compromise with Congress.

“Our hope is to move ahead on this issue. Our hope is that the administration will support the legislation to move the embassy,” Dole said.

Dole unveiled his legislative plan last May at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference.

AIPAC, which has led the charge for the bill, hailed the new version.

“This new legislation will once and for all rectify a half-century wrong,” said Neal Sher, AIPAC’s executive director.

Israeli officials have publicly supported moving the embassy but remain concerned over a potential move’s impact on the peace talks.

“It’s time to move the embassy to Jerusalem even though I’m sure the Arab world will not applaud the Americans,” said Yossi Beilin, Israeli economics and planning minister, in an interview with Jewish journalists last week. “With all due respect to the Arab states I cannot accept that anybody will be angry with us only because we are going to have a capital.”

Meanwhile, a petition bearing the signatures of thousands of Israelis who support moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem has been sent to senators in Washington. The petition was initiated by Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.

In addition to Moynihan, Sens. John Kyl (R-Ariz.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Sen. Alfonso D’Amato (D-N.Y.) and Joseph Liberman (D-Conn.) joined Dole as primary co-sponsors.

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