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Debate over U.S. Embassy Dominates Aipac Conference

May 8, 1995
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For the second year in a row, the status of Jerusalem dominated debate at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The gathering, which brought 2,400 pro-Israel lobbyists, including 800 students, from across the nation was highlighted by a joint appearance by President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Clinton and Rabin, in successive addresses Sunday night, joined forces to reiterate their determination to forge ahead with the wavering Middle East peace process.

But beyond excitement of the leader’s appearance, the real buzz at the conference centered on Jerusalem.

Last year, the issue came to the fore amid a pending U.N. resolution, debated in the wake of the February 1994 Hebron massacre, that referred to Jerusalem as occupied territory.

This year, the issue of Jerusalem surfaced as word spread that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) planned to use his speech to AIPAC Monday night to unveil legislation to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The legislation would require the U.S. State Department to begin construction of a new U.S. Embassy in western Jerusalem by the end of 1996 and would require an official move by 1999.

Although long an agenda item for the pro-Israel community, the embassy issue has prompted concern among Israeli and U.S. administration officials as well as among some peace activists that the timing could disrupt the already volatile Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Under the Israeli-Palestinian accords, the issue of Jerusalem is to be left to the final stages of negotiations, to begin no later than 1996.

Israeli officials have repeatedly declared that Jerusalem will remain the “eternal, undivided capital of the State Of Israel.” But the current government has said the Palestinians, who envision eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, can bring the issue to the table for the final-status talks.

Israeli officials are caught in a bind over the embassy issue, say observers. Having long emphasized the centrality of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they cannot now be seen by their own public as backing down on an issue that one observer described as “clear as motherhood and apple pie.”

The prime minister did not directly address the embassy issue in his remarks, but dwelled heavily on Jerusalem, opening and closing with images of the city that marked it as the “capital of the State of Israel forever.”

But in a briefing with reporters later in the evening, Rabin seemed to brush off the embassy debate as one that had more to do with domestic American politics than true substance.

The prime minister recalled a 1972 speech by then-congressman Gerald Ford advocating a move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. When Rabin, then ambassador to the United States, met two years later with then-President Ford at the White House, Rabin asked him about the embassy issued.

In the Oval Office you view things differently than from the House of Representatives,” Rabin quoted Ford as saying.

However, other Israeli officials here expressed more open concern about the timing of the issue.

Although “in principle we are for it, we are in a very fragile stage of the [peace] process,” said Health Minister Ephraim Sneh in a brief interview.

“For those of us who want the process to succeed, we have to be careful,” added Sneh, who was one of the speakers at the opening AIPAC plenary.

In contrast, members of the Israeli opposition, out in full force at the AIPAC conference, praised Dole’s initiative.

Zalman Shoval, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States who now serves as the head of the Likud Party’s Bureau of Foreign Relations, urged a roomful of pro-Israel lobbyists to “thank the U.S. Senate to move the embassy to Jerusalem.”

Indeed, AIPAC officials wholeheartedly embraced the effort, expressing unequivocal support for Dole’s pending legislation.

“We definitely are going to be supportive of legislation to move the embassy,” said Neal Sher, AIPAC’s executive director.

“We think it’s the right thing to do.”

AIPAC President Steven Grossman told reporters that support for the legislation “is an entirely appropriate and responsible position to take,” because the timing of the bill would allow “negotiations to continue.”

It is consistent with the D’Amato-Moynihan letter, he said, referring to a letter sent by 93 senators last month so Secretary of State Warren Christopher, calling on the United States to move its embassy at the end of the final-status talks. More than 260 members of the House have signed a similar letter.

And even though Clinton studiously avoided the issue in his speech, Richard Katz, an AIPAC vice president, in thanking the president for his remarks, ended by saying: “We pledge to go to Israel and visit the construction site of the new American Embassy in Jerusalem.”

Leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also expressed support for the Dole initiative.

Lester Pollack, outgoing chairman of the umbrella organization, said, “I imagine the community would support” the Dole initiative.

But not everyone agrees. Several groups, including, the Americans for Peace Now and Project Nishma, are vehemently opposing the move.

Americans for Peace Now sent a letter to senators, urging opposition to the Dole initiative.

“There’s no debate that the American Embassy should be in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel,” said the group in a statement. “The critical issue is when to move it and with what consequences for the peace process.”

“Moving the embassy now could undermine the negotiations and prevent the realization of a truly united and peaceful Jerusalem,” leaders of Peace Now said.

Thomas Smerling, executive director of Project Nishma, expressed similar views, and both groups decried what they called the “political pandering to the Jewish community.”

“Moving the U.S. Embassy is an American football, not an Israeli priority,” Smerling said. “Every four years, in anticipation of primary elections, presidential hopefuls raise this issue to outbid their rivals and embarrass the administration.”

Even Pollack of the Conference of Presidents said, “One can’t ignore that domestic politics bears on this issue.”

In preparing their delegates to lobby on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, AIPAC officials listed the embassy issue as one of three primary topics on which to focus at meetings with individual lawmakers.

The other two issues on the lobbying agenda, AIPAC officials said, included AIPAC’s traditional agenda item — renewal of $3 billion in U.S. military and economic aid to Israel — and support for legislation against Iran.

Although not listed among the top three lobbying items, another controversial issue — support for continued economic assistance to the Palestine Liberation Organization — received considerable attention here.

With legislation that allows for U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority up for renewal at the end of June, AIPAC officials used the conference to clearly delineate its support for continued Palestinian assistance.

The legislation, which conditions PLO assistance on its compliance with its accords with Israel, has put AIPAC in a precarious position, according to several observers.

“AIPAC is caught between a strident right-wing constituency and the government of Israel,” said one observer, echoing the view of many.

While opponents of ongoing Palestinian assistance have called on U.S. lawmakers to hold the PLO to all of its commitments, including amending the PLO covenant and cracking down on Islamic extremists, the Israeli government, though clearly not satisfied that the PLO has upheld its commitments, believes that a cutoff in economic assistance would derail the peace talks.

AIPAC officials, in their executive committee meeting earlier Sunday, voted after some debate to support the renewal of the legislation, know as the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, according to sources at the closed-door meeting.

The committee also voted to work to strengthen the legislation with amendments and with a specific list of issues with the PLO is expected to comply, including amending its covenant, which calls for the destruction of Israel, and cracking down on terrorism.

Explaining the group-s decision at a session Sunday, Steven Rosen, AIPAC’s director of foreign policy issues, said AIPAC has concluded that “the steps taken by the Palestinian Authority” to crack down on terrorism “are not nearly adequate, but [are] very real.”

There has “been a steady improvement” in the PLO’s performance, including a cessation in direct acts of terrorism against Israel, Rosen said.

“We have the power to stop the flow of funds,” Rosen said. “But the question is whether economic warfare against the Palestinian Authority is the solution.”

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization who has been in the forefront of a crusade in Congress to seek stricter compliance, said he was “troubled” by what he called “AIPAC’s evident change of policy” on the compliance issue.

Klein, who has been circulating his own negative assessment of the PLO record over the past year, said he would continue to lobby for stricter provisions of the act, including a six-month deadline for full PLO compliance.

Failure to comply under his proposal would result in the termination or reduction of U.S. aid.

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