Behind the Headlines: at Least for Now, Congress Heeds Barak’s Plea to Avoid ‘ill-timed’ Moves
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Behind the Headlines: at Least for Now, Congress Heeds Barak’s Plea to Avoid ‘ill-timed’ Moves

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As Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Barak made the rounds on Capitol Hill last week to urge lawmakers to avoid “ill-timed” initiatives that could frustrate his Middle East peace efforts, four key U.S. senators were working behind the scenes to force a vote on such a measure.

The issue of relocating the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – – seen as a sign of support for Israel’s control over Jerusalem — was about to be thrust into the spotlight during a Senate debate over the State Department’s budget.

Barak has said he is committed to retaining Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, but in a meeting with Jewish lawmakers last week he had pled with them “not to get out in front of him and to let him have the opportunity to bring peace to the Middle East.”

In the end, the Senate backed down and Barak got what he wanted. At least for now.

No one was out to embarrass Barak during his first visit to Washington as Israel’s premier. But Jerusalem has always been a bread-and-butter issue for elected officials trying to stake out pro-Israel positions.

But in a sign of how much the definition of what is pro-Israel has changed since the Israelis and Palestinians signed the Oslo accords in 1993, neither Israel’s leader nor the pro-Israel lobby were embracing this public display of support for moving the U.S. Embassy.

When asked his position, Barak pointedly did not call for an immediate relocation of the embassy. Instead he said he was working on the “preconditions” — meaning resolution of final-status issues with the Palestinians — to make such a move possible.

A Senate vote on the issue was just the type of distraction that Barak was seeking to avoid as he tried to solidify his relationship with President Clinton and focus on restarting the peace talks.

The legislative maneuvering posed a serious dilemma for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has worked for decades to move the embassy.

Four of its closest allies were about to deliver.

Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had the votes to cut $100 million from the State Department’s budget if the president did not declare that “the United States now formally recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that it is United States policy that Jerusalem should remain undivided.”

The measure also would have required the United States to “carry out official ambassadorial functions in the city of Jerusalem, Israel.”

The senators had already postponed similar action until after the Israeli elections, but now had the vehicle in which to advance their cause.

AIPAC could not abandon its friends, which it had helped put out on this legislative limb.

With the support of the Clinton administration, a compromise was struck under which the senators would quietly add their amendment to the State Department Appropriations bill through a procedure that did not require a vote.

All parties expected that the measure would be dropped before the bill reached the president’s desk.

In the end, the amendment was not included in the bill because Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) objected.

But there was no public debate, no floor vote and no public confrontation with the White House. Barak, on this issue, had gotten his wish.

And AIPAC had sent a message to Capitol Hill that the days of confrontation with the administration, a hallmark of the last three years under former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were over.

The pro-Israel lobby, which had been widely criticized by some of Barak’s top advisers last year for fomenting unnecessary battles with the Clinton administration, had delivered in its promise to support the Barak government.

This was “a decision that reflects the need to reconcile the need to move the embassy with Israel’s pursuit for peace with its neighbors,” a senior AIPAC official said on the condition that his name not be used.

Sensitive that it would be accused of going soft on Jerusalem, the official stressed that the group is “never going to abandon the effort to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.”

But, the official said, “we are moving in a prudent and moderate manner to achieve that objective.”

For their part, eighty-four senators, instead of voting on the issue, wrote a letter to urge Clinton to move the embassy.

“Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, a fact that should have been recognized long ago by putting our embassy there,” the letter released last Friday said.

Clinton has promised not to move the embassy until the Palestinians and Israelis resolve the issue of Jerusalem in final-status talks.

Although AIPAC had put out the fire over the latest Jerusalem initiative, Jewish activists and the Clinton administration are preparing for more congressional action in the months to come.

Going on the offensive to seek opposition to such moves, Martin Indyk, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, asked the Jewish community to “do its part” to support the peace process.

“All of us are obliged to do all that we can to help Arabs and Israel come to terms,” Indyk said in a speech to Hadassah delegates gathered in Washington this week for their annual conference.

“The Bible says first we have to make peace at home. We need peace in our own community, our own American Jewish community,” Indyk said Monday.

In an interview, Indyk said, “It’s not right for me to tell the American Jewish community what to do.

“If the government of the United States and the government of Israel are all focused” on trying to achieve peace in the region, “then it would be very helpful if the Jewish community would also” work to support that aim.

Those working against Barak’s calls to not get out in front of him are likely to run into some obstacles on Capitol Hill, where at least one senior senator is dismissing their efforts.

“It’s time for them to realize where we are — Israel, the United States, the Palestinians– in terms of negotiations and direction,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in a telephone interview.

But even with Barak’s “biggest plurality of any prime minister ever” Lautenberg does not expect the Jewish community to unite behind him.

“We will never have in the Jewish community — even if there are only three people — we will never have unanimity.”

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