This week’s congressional vote to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem marks the first time the United States has moved to recognize with the force of law a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The legislation, which came on the eve of official festivities here to celebrate Jerusalem 3000, was greeted with cheers by Israel and most American Jewish groups and with condemnation by the Palestinians.
Despite Israeli sovereignty over its capital, the Palestinians seek eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a hoped-for future state.
With overwhelming bipartisan support, the Senate passed a bill Tuesday by a vote of 93-5 that requires the State Department to move the embassy by May 31, 1999.
The House of Representatives was also expected to pass the measure in time for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s visit to the Capital on Wednesday to celebrate Jerusalem 3000.
Aiming to win the support of the administration and lawmakers who were concerned that the move could disrupt the peace process at an especially critical time, sponsors of the measure agreed to allow the president to postpone the move by renewable six-month intervals.
President Clinton is expected to sign the legislation, although his administration was clearly not happy with the congressional act.
Robert Pelletreau, assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, accused Congress of trying to “undercut” the Declaration of Principles signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation organization two years ago.
“This is not the appropriate time to be considering this legislation when we are making such dramatic progress in the peace process,” he told reporters here Wednesday. “The focus should be on the peace process and we should not be engaging in any action which would harm the peace process.”
El Salvador and Costa Rica are the only countries that maintain embassies in Jerusalem.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres welcomed the move.
“We appreciate very much the act that was taken by the American Congress,” Peres said. “If there is one issue that Israel is united around it is united Jerusalem, as the capital of Israel.”
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin concurred.
“Jerusalem is our eternal capital,” he told reporters during his visit to New York, adding that he welcomed the Senate move.
But Faisal Husseini, the PLO’s top official in Jerusalem, condemned the move, saying that it could harm Israeli-Arab peace efforts. He reportedly said the United States had promised the Palestinians it would not take any steps that could affect the final status of Jerusalem.
In fact, the final version of the measure, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), dropped a controversial provision that would have required groundbreaking on a Jerusalem embassy site in 1996.
Palestinian and Israel negotiators are scheduled to complete talks on the final status of Jerusalem in 1999.
The congressional votes end a decade long battle spearheaded by Sen. Danie Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) to recognize a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The Senate corrected “an absurdity which has endured for nearly half a century,” Moynihan said on the floor of the Senate during debate of the bill.
Anticipating charges that the bill would interfere with the peace process, Moynihan told his Senate colleagues, “It is inconceivable that Israel would agree to any proposal in which Jerusalem did not remain the capital of Israel.”
The vote came after hours of Senate debate on the measure. Although there was no significant opposition to the move in principle, several lawmakers sought additional changes before they endorsed the legislation.
At the same time, many senators sought to speak in favor of the measure.
“This legislation is not about the peace process, it is about recognizing Israel’s capital,” Dole said on the Senate floor moments before the historic vote.
“Israel’s capital is not on the table in the peace process and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem does nothing to prejudge the outcome of any future negotiations,” said Dole, who first unveiled the measure at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual meeting in May.
AIPAC, which aggressively lobbied members to support the measure, hailed its passage.
“It brings U.S. policy in line with its long-held belief that Jerusalem should be recognized as Israel’s capital and that our embassy should be moved there,” said Neal Sher, executive director of AIPAC.
As the vote was being taken shortly before noon on Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who had negotiated with Dole on behalf of the administration, huddled with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Both Jewish senators smiled broadly as the results were coming in, but there was no other show of emotion on the Senate floor after the results were read.
Declaring that “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel,” the measure directs the State Department to set aside $25 million in 1996 and $75 million in 1997 for the construction and other costs associated with moving the embassy.
The bill also declares that Jerusalem “should remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected.”
Within 30 days of the measure becoming law, Secretary of State Warren Christopher must submit a report to Congress that includes a timetable for construction and an estimate of the necessary funds.
Many American Jewish groups supported the goal of the legislation but withheld endorsement of the original bill that required groundbreaking to begin in 1996, fearing it would impact the peace process and insert partisanship into the status of Jerusalem.
After the vote, however, virtually all Jewish organizations expressed support for the bill.
“This is an historic occasion. Something we have sought for many years is now a reality,’ said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
At least one Jewish group, however, expressed disappointment. The Zionist Organization of America criticized Congress for dropping the provisions that required construction to start next year.
“We are deeply disappointed that President Clinton has pressured congressional leaders to virtually cripple the Jerusalem embassy bill by adding presidential waiver language, thereby reneging on his 1992 campaign promise to recognize all of Jerusalem and the sovereign undivided capital of Israel,” said ZOA President Morton Klein.
Arab American groups also criticized the measure. They had urged members to vote against the bill in a full page ad in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
The legislation “is inappropriate and can only have a negative effect on future peace negotiations,” wrote Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans.
“No single religion has a greater claim to Jerusalem than any other.”
Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), John Chafee (R-R.I.) and James Jeffords (R-Vt.) voted against the measure, citing concerns that it would impact the peace process. Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), the only Arab American in the Senate, also voted against the measure, saying that it prejudices the outcome of the peace talks.
Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), a co-sponsor of the measure, was not present for the vote.
The other missing vote was because of the empty seat of Sen. Bob Packwood (R- Ore.), who resigned from the Senate earlier this month. His seat has not yet been filled.