NEW YORK, Jan. 9 (JTA) — On the evening of Dec. 18, a group of Jewish leaders enjoyed a lovely evening at the White House as they joined President Bush at the annual Chanukah celebration. Just a few hours earlier, Bush had signed a document relieving his administration from the obligation — and his own campaign promise — to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as required by the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act.
Since identical waivers have been invoked like clockwork twice a year since the law took effect, the president’s action hardly came as a surprise, certainly not to the pro-Israel lobby. Indeed, with the Zionist Organization of America as the one glaring exception, no major Jewish group uttered as much as a whisper of disappointment, let alone protest.
That yawn of a reaction is itself troubling because the waiver perpetuated the single most hypocritical element of the pro-Israel agenda.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, as elements of the pro-Israel lobby have treated this issue as a pawn in a game of political partisanship.
A bit of history is in order. It was early 1995 and the Oslo process was trudging along. The Jerusalem embassy issue had come to the fore and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which I headed at the time, could not ignore it.
Recognizing that both the Rabin government in Israel and the Clinton administration in the United States did not favor legislation, AIPAC’s board made a deliberate decision to support a “softer” approach, such as a nonbinding congressional resolution.
But the 1996 presidential campaign was heating up and AIPAC would soon hold its annual policy conference. The conditions were ripe for some political mischief, so a few manipulators leaped into action and hijacked the issue in hopes of driving a wedge between Clinton and the Jewish community.
Several days before our conference, my deputy, current AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, told me that behind my back he had lobbied Robert Dole, a U.S. senator and Republican presidential candidate, and had persuaded him to introduce a bill requiring the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. Most countries do not keep their embassies in Jerusalem for fear of angering Arab and Muslim circles, which do not accept Israeli control of the city.
Slated to speak at our gathering, Dole undoubtedly would make this the centerpiece of his appearance. Did it matter to Kohr — or to Dole’s AIPAC contact and fund-raiser Robert Asher, a powerful board member — that the senator previously had opposed such legislation, or that the scheme was in direct contravention of AIPAC policy?
Not in the least. It was just too delicious: No self-respecting political partisan could pass up such an opportunity to score points and raise a few bucks for his candidate and party.
They knew they could bank on their ploy taking on a life of its own once it went public. And that’s exactly what happened: Dole’s office solicited AIPAC lobbyists to draft the speech he would give a few days later to thunderous applause; a boxed-in AIPAC had to reverse itself and endorse the proposed law; and the government of Israel, despite its well-known misgivings, had to support the effort publicly.
But the legislation that eventually passed contained an escape clause, permitting the president to waive implementation on the grounds of national security. When Clinton invoked that provision, as he promised he would, he ran into a firestorm of criticism.
Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) accused Clinton of showing “contempt” for Congress, acting in bad faith. Kyl threatened to amend the law to remove the waiver authority if Clinton dared to use it again.
For his part, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) was “very disappointed” that Clinton relied on a “loophole” to ignore the congressional mandate. The Republican Jewish Coalition, the Orthodox Union and ZOA all took Clinton to task.
As for AIPAC, Kohr proclaimed after Clinton’s June 1999 waiver, “We’re disappointed, to put it mildly.”
Predictably, the issue became part of the 2000 presidential campaign. Democratic candidate Al Gore, it was assumed, would continue with the waiver; no real story there.
But what about Governor Bush of Texas, the foreign policy novice who was intent on improving on his father’s weak showing in the Jewish community? Here it gets interesting.
When ZOA President Morton Klein met with Bush for several minutes at a Newark Airport hotel in 2000, he raised only one point: Would a President Bush move the embassy?
“No,” was the reply, since it would “screw up the peace process.”
When those views hit the press, the Bush campaign staff went into full damage control, insisting with straight faces that their boss must have been misunderstood.
A short time later the handlers were in full command as Bush, now more Catholic than the pope, promised thousands of faithful at the AIPAC conference that he would move the embassy “as soon as” he took office. To punctuate the pledge, he assured the Republican Jewish Coalition that he would do this on his very first day as president. Apparently the messiah had arrived, and he hailed from Crawford, Texas.
Last month’s waiver marks, by my count, the 12th time this president has certified that honoring his braggadocio campaign promise would not be in our nation’s interest. Where, I ask, is the sense of outrage from Senators Kyl and Brownback and the others who had been like bulldogs in attacking a previous administration? Is only one party capable of “bad faith” or “contempt” of Congress?
And where is the protest from Kohr’s AIPAC, whose platform Bush used to trumpet a promise he had no intention of keeping?
How about the Republican Jewish Coalition? They used the waiver to try to discredit Clinton, but when Bush did it in 2001, they offered up support and understanding.
In 2001, a Jewish activist and Bush backer was asked what he thought of his man having issued a waiver in the face of the barnburner AIPAC speech given only a year earlier.
“No one,” he claimed unapologetically, “takes these promises seriously.”
Really? If he’s right, shame on us for allowing — indeed, encouraging — the U.S.-Israel relationship to be treated so cavalierly by politicians and their operatives. It makes us look inept and foolish.
And these days, with so much on the table, we cannot afford to look inept or foolish. Either get serious about the embassy and launch a full-scale push to make it happen, or put it aside. In any case, we must not allow political partisans — no matter what hat they claim to be wearing — to play us like fiddles.
There may be a way to bring this to a head: The House International Relations Committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), or the Foreign Relations Committee under Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) should hold hearings on why George Bush has not made good on his bold and repeated campaign promise.
It’s time to smoke out and expose the hypocrisy.
(New York attorney Neal Sher is former executive director of AIPAC and former director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations.)