WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (JTA) - Just a week into President George W. Bush’s “honeymoon” period, Jewish groups are questioning when he will make good on his campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Bush received international attention during the presidential campaign when he told a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that one of the first acts of his presidency would be to move the embassy, as mandated by Congress.
“As soon as I take office, I will begin the process of moving the United States ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital,” Bush said in the speech. Campaign officials later clarified that the embassy, not just the ambassador, would be moved.
But that speech came last May, before the Palestinians erupted in anti-Israel violence last fall that has threatened to destroy the peace process. Now, in a much different climate, Bush is being asked to make good on his promise.
Israel’s conquest of eastern Jerusalem in 1967 is not recognized internationally, and most countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel keep their embassies in the Tel Aviv area. Only Costa Rica and El Salvador keep their embassies in Jerusalem.
A nearly unanimous Congress passed a law in 1995 mandating that the United States move its embassy to Jerusalem as well. However, President Clinton repeatedly took advantage of an escape clause to avoid moving the embassy, citing national security reasons and the ongoing peace talks.
With Jerusalem up for negotiation as part of the peace talks, Clinton feared moving the embassy would disrupt the process.
Clinton’s latest waiver was signed in December, postponing the move for an additional six months.
Bush can override that waiver at any time. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said earlier this week that Bush has started looking into moving the embassy, but no one at the White House has said how long the process will take.
Sources at the State Department, however, said the administration will wait until the waiver expires in May before deciding on future steps.
Some Jewish leaders have become quite adamant that Bush must be held to his promise. The National Jewish Democratic Council started an “Embassy Watch” soon after Bush took office.
The Zionist Organization of America will urge Bush to follow through on his campaign promise and seek support from Republican lawmakers, National President Morton Klein said.
“This is an opportunity to send a strong message to” Palestinian Authority President Yasser “Arafat that the U.S. supports Israel,” Klein said.
AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr said the issue “still is important to the community,” but predicted that Bush would want to reassess the situation after Israel’s Feb. 6 election for prime minister.
“Whatever happens in this arena needs to be done in consultation with the current government of Israel,” Kohr said. “That conversation hasn’t even started yet because we don’t know exactly what the government in Israel will be.”
Marshall Breger, a law professor at Catholic University of America, said it is unrealistic to expect Bush to take such a controversial step so early in his presidency.
“Bush has not yet put together his Middle East team, so it’s hard to believe he’ll examine Middle East policy before he puts his team together,” Breger said.
And with the climate in the Middle East so dramatically changed since Bush’s AIPAC speech eight months ago, Breger said, the new president must reassess the political ramifications of moving the embassy.
“Do you want to throw a match where there is already gas?” Breger asked.