Barak tells visiting congressmen to cool it on embassy issue for now

WASHINGTON, Aug. 18 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has explicitly asked members of Congress to stop trying to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “We do not want to give the Palestinians any pretext for delaying the peace talks or postponing them,” Barak told Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky) and Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) on Wednesday in Jerusalem, according to sources who were briefed on the meeting. The lawmakers are part of a parade of more than two dozen members of Congress scheduled to visit Israel during the August congressional recess. Barak specifically asked the lawmakers to wait at least six months before taking up any new initiatives on the embassy. A nearly unanimous House and Senate passed a law in 1995 that required the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem by May of this year. Citing national security interests and Israeli-Palestinian agreements to negotiate the final status of Jerusalem, Clinton has postponed the move. Angry at the delay, members of Congress have introduced legislation and drafted letters that seek to force the embassy move. During Barak’s July visit to the United States, he carried a similar message to members of Congress. At the meeting with Jewish lawmakers, Barak asked them to postpone “ill-timed” initiatives, including measures aimed at strengthening Israel’s control over Jerusalem, according to participants in the meeting. “He asked us not to get out in front of him and to let him have the opportunity to bring peace to the Middle East,” according to participants. While Barak did not specifically ask that resolutions not be introduced, he did ask members to consider whether resolutions would be counterproductive to his search for peace. But now that many members of Congress have continued to push the issue, Barak went one step further, asking them to hold their fire on what has been a bread-and-butter issue for lawmakers seeking American Jewish support. And he’s getting support from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has lobbied aggressively on the issue for years. “We will never, ever abandon the push to move the embassy to Jerusalem. We are going to continue our ongoing consultations with Congress,” said Kenneth Bricker, an AIPAC spokesman. But top AIPAC officials have said they will examine each initiative to see whether it “furthers the peace process.” AIPAC’s top leaders met with Barak this week in advance of two trips the group’s educational institute is sponsoring that will bring 11 Republican members of Congress and 20 Democrats to Israel this month. Barak’s move to stop congressional initiatives on Jerusalem could slow the rush of candidates who have staked out positions on the issue in recent weeks. Last week, Republican frontrunner Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former Sen. Bill Bradley, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, both expressed support for moving the embassy. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has launched an all-but-announced Senate bid from New York, has also endorsed the move.

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