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U.S. senators pressing Clinton to move embassy to Jerusalem

WASHINGTON, May 4 (JTA) — The quest for formal U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital shifted into high gear this week as four key senators worked to force the Clinton administration to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The lawmakers are working against a deadline set by a 1995 law that imposes financial penalties on the State Department if the embassy is not moved by the end of this month. Because of the way the law is worded, the penalties, which would reduce the budget for construction and maintenance of all State Department posts overseas, would not be felt until later this year. President Clinton has vowed to postpone the move in the interests of “national security” by using a waiver included in that law, the Jerusalem Embassy Act, as early as June. Israelis and Palestinians agreed to leave the most contentious issues — including the status of Jerusalem — until final-status talks. Under the Oslo accords, those talks were to have been completed by this week, but they have barely gotten off the ground. Clinton, who opposed the embassy legislation from the start, has vowed not to move forward on it until Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resolve the final status of the city. But some members of Congress think the embassy should have been moved already. By keeping America’s top diplomatic post in Tel Aviv, the United States is giving the Palestinians false expectations, members of Congress have argued. The United States maintains a consulate in Jerusalem, responsible for contacts with the Palestinians and Americans traveling in the city, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The consul general reports directly to the State Department. The State Department owns a vacant plot of land in western Jerusalem, presumably for a future embassy. Angered by the administration’s failure move the embassy, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) drafted a letter to Clinton announcing his plans to introduce legislation that would take away the president’s ability to issue a waiver. Kyl proposed extending the deadline for “establishing an embassy” in Jerusalem by six months in one draft of the letter and one year in another. But Kyl’s effort to convince Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) or Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to sign on to his plan appeared to collapse on Tuesday after a lobbying effort by the White House and the State Department. Schumer, who had negotiated the wording and had planned to sign Kyl’s letter, backed off this week, sources said. Instead of signing onto Kyl’s plan, the Democratic members united and agreed to wait to press the issue until after Israel’s upcoming elections. While Kyl has taken a more hard-line stance demanding that the administration move the embassy soon, the Democratic members offered more flexibility over timing. Sources on Capitol Hill said Kyl’s effort forced the Clinton administration to respond to a March letter from Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who wants Clinton to declare his support for a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, promise to build an embassy there and, in the interim, designate a site for ambassadorial functions in Jerusalem. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger was scheduled to respond as early as this week to Moynihan’s letter. Berger is expected to declare the administration’s intent to comply with the “spirit and letter” of the Jerusalem Embassy Act, according to a source who did not want to be identified. Berger will propose a meeting in the near future to discuss implementing the administration’s policy, deferring the issue, sources said, until after the Israeli elections. The embassy maintains a suite of offices in Jerusalem. These offices, once at the LaRomme Hotel, are now at the Jerusalem Hilton Hotel, sources said. While the Clinton administration’s response is unlikely to sway Kyl, who has told supporters that Clinton has acted like a “scofflaw” by not moving the embassy, Berger’s response “is going to avoid a partisan food fight on Capitol Hill,” said David Luchins, a senior Moynihan aide. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert promised Moynihan two years ago to name the street on which a future U.S. embassy would stand “Daniel Patrick Moynihan Way.” After this week’s flurry of activist, Luchins said, “We’re one step closer.” Currently, Costa Rica and El Salvador are the only countries that have embassies in Jerusalem. The rest have their embassies in Tel Aviv.