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Senate grills Clinton nominee on U.S. policy toward Jerusalem

WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 (JTA) – The Clinton administration’s policy on Jerusalem came under sustained bipartisan attack this week at the confirmation hearing for the man slated to hold the top U.S. Middle East policy post. From the hearing’s outset on Thursday, Martin Indyk fended off questions about President Clinton’s rejection of congressional legislative efforts to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Indyk, the current U.S. ambassador to Israel, is credited with crafting Clinton’s response to the legislation. In spite of the sharp policy disagreement between the administration and Congress over Jerusalem, no senators raised opposition to Indyk’s nomination, all but assuring his confirmation. The committee plans to vote on the nomination as early as next week. The nomination would then go to the entire Senate for confirmation. Indyk did not unveil any new U.S. policies at the hearing, although he did confirm that the United States has begun a security dialogue with the Palestinians to craft a policy to crack down on the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian-controlled areas. Indyk’s confirmation hearings came a week after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s trip to the Middle East, in which she said she was “not going to come back here to tread water.” When asked about continued U.S. involvement to get the Israeli- Palestinian peace process back on track, he said that the United States would not disengage from the process. He cited next week’s scheduled meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials at the State Department. Because Indyk is originally from Australia, the Senate committee broke with the tradition of inviting the home-state senator to make the introduction of the nominee. Instead, Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) stepped forward to present Indyk. Ironically, it was then Lieberman, along with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who urged the committee to raise the administration’s Jerusalem policy. Indyk became the first Jew to serve as ambassador to Israel when he assumed the post in 1995. He would also be the first Jew to serve in the assistant secretary post, which has customarily been held by diplomats with experience in Arab countries. In a move that set the tone for the hour and a half hearing, the senators in their introductions to the committee called on Indyk to move the embassy. A 1994 U.S. law requires such planning to have begun in anticipation of a move by May 31, 1999. The president could delay the move in the interest of national security. “I recognize that Ambassador Indyk is supporting the policy of the administration, but it is my hope that as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, he may one day soon have the honor of participating in the grand opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem,” Lieberman said in his introduction, echoing comments made by Moynihan. “It was our profound hope, clearly across party lines, that this legislation would lay to rest some of the most vexing issues regarding American policy toward Israel,” Lieberman said. “Unfortunately, not only has the State Department failed to implement the law, but its representatives have regularly sought to stonewall further progress toward recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in these halls.” When the hearing moved into questions and answers, Indyk wasted little time responding to the embassy issue. “The administration is trying to walk a very fine line between the understandable desire of the Senate to see concrete actions to implement the legislation, and the president’s strongly held view that while the law must be upheld, nothing should be done to disrupt the effort to put the peace process back on track,” he said, noting that the current controversy over Jewish families moving into Ras al-Amud is emblematic of the sensitive nature of Jerusalem. In addition to answering questions about the embassy relocation law, Indyk was also called upon to defend the administration’s opposition to the current version of the State Department authorization bill that would give parents the option to have “Jerusalem, Israel” recorded as their child’s place of birth. Current U.S. policy refers only to “Jerusalem.” Indyk said such a change would “complicate and make more difficult” efforts to restart the peace process. He said the same about another proposal to bring the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem under the supervision of the embassy. The consulate, which is in eastern Jerusalem, is “responsible for political dialogue with the Palestinian Authority,” he said.