News Analysis: Congress’ Moves on Jerusalem Prompt an International Furor

On May 20, the U.S. Senate celebrated the 30th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem by calling on the president and secretary of state to declare publicly that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of the State of Israel.

No senior Palestinian officials marched on the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem to protest the Senate vote on the symbolic resolution. Palestinian police did not allow Arab youths in Hebron to throw stones at Israeli troops to signal discontent with the American government.

The measure, like scores of other “Sense of the Congress” resolutions passed each year, drew virtually no international attention and was virtually ignored by the Clinton administration and national media.

But when the House passed the identical resolution exactly three weeks later on June 10 — along with other concrete actions supporting Israel’s claim to Jerusalem — marchers rallied and stones flew.

“If this will be a decision adopted by the United States, it is the end of this peace process,” Faisal Husseini, the top Palestinian official in Jerusalem, told demonstrators outside the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.

The mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrima Sabri, who was appointed by the Palestinian Authority, said: “We reject America as a co-sponsor of the so-called negotiations because America has unveiled its ugly face.”

What happened in the days that separated the Senate and House votes highlights the intensifying crisis in the peace process and the methods Palestinian leaders employ in their battle to win concessions from Israel.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been frozen since March, when Israel began construction of a Jewish housing site in southeastern Jerusalem and a Palestinian suicide bomber attacked a Tel Aviv cafe, killing three Israeli women.

Tensions continued to escalate. After the Senate vote last month, an Egyptian mediation effort failed and the United States backed off its own unsuccessful attempts to restart peace talks.

Then the House entered the fray to reiterate its support for Israel’s policy of an undivided Jerusalem.

In addition, it passed a package of amendments on Jerusalem, which included $100 million designated for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In fact, it is unlikely that the money will ever be spent because the House only “authorized” the funding. A separate law as well as President Clinton’s approval, which is unlikely, would be required for it to happen.

None of the senior congressional aides who wrote and helped shepherd the measures through the House and Senate thought they would evoke such passions.

Several of the aides described the measure on an undivided Jerusalem, in particular, as a routine expression of support for Israeli sovereignty over its capital.

In fact, Congress has expressed such sentiments at least 10 times since 1990.

But Palestinians saw the move differently. And international condemnation came swiftly.

On a swing through Persian Gulf states this week, Secretary of Defense William Cohen was peppered with questions and criticism in virtually every capital he visited.

“The resolution that was passed by the House would not contribute to getting the peace process back on track,” a Pentagon official quoted Cohen as saying in Bahrain. “The resolution does not reflect the administration’s policy.”

The administration holds the position that Jerusalem should remain as is until Israel and the Palestinians negotiate its future in final-status talks as they agreed to do in the Oslo accords.

Like most countries, the United States has never recognized Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem.

The U.S. Embassy remains in Tel Aviv and the State Department maintains a consulate in eastern Jerusalem to handle matters in the city as well as in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But Congress has tried, so far in vain, to push Clinton to recognize a united Jerusalem under Israel’s rule.

In addition to the resolution and the measure calling for the embassy to move, the House passed a State Department authorization bill requiring that:

The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem serve under the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv;

U.S. government documents list Jerusalem as the capital of Israel;

The U.S. State Department list “Jerusalem, Israel” as a place of birth in a passport, replacing the current policy of only identifying “Jerusalem.”

These measures were accompanied by a fiery speech by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who equated the Palestinian murder of land dealers who sold real estate to Jews with the actions of the Nazis.

But for now all the efforts on Capitol Hill are non-binding. Given the mounting White House opposition to the bill that contains these Jerusalem provisions, passage is far from certain.

So for now, attention is focused on what Clinton meant when he pledged to a group of Democratic Jewish donors this week that “over the next several days, we’ll be seeing some progress.”

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