Posted on March 13, 1995 in Washington Watch

Jerusalem is once again a front and center as an issue in U.S. politics.

As the Clinton Administration grapples with how to respond to Congressional pressure to move to the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, U.S. religious leaders are engaged in their own conflict over their positions on the holy city.

To its credit, despite significant pressure, the Administration has remained quite firm in its determination to adhere to the terms of the peace process.

The Congressional pressure comes in the form of a letter being circulated in the Senate. Started by New York Senators Alfonse D’Amato and Patrick Daniel Moynihan, the letter has already received 77 co-signers, making it one of the largest groups that has ever signed on to one of these pro-Israel statements. (Estimates are that the list will finally include about 85 of the 100 Senators.)

The letter, which is addressed to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, recalls that the Senate has passed five resolutions over the past decade calling on the U.S. government to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The letter cynically notes that Jerusalem is “a sensitive issue in the current peace process” and that it is “a final status issue,” but then goes on to say that “the search for peace can only be hindered by raising utterly unrealistic hopes about the future status of Jerusalem among the Palestinians….”

In other words, while the question of Jerusalem is a final status issue only in theory, and the signatories of the letter want the U.S. to dictate the outcome so that the status quo remains unchanged. The Senators have therefore called on the Administration to begin planning to move the Embassy so that such a move can take place no later than May of 1999 – the end of the “transition phase” provided for in the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Complementing the letter is a resolution being introduced in the Senate by Arizona Republican Jon Kyle which, if passed, would remove U.S. financial support for the Embassy in Tel Aviv and provide funding only for an Embassy in Jerusalem.

The Clinton Administration has not only resisted these politically motivated efforts by the Senate but has done so in the most public and assertive manner. At the confirmation hearings for his nomination as the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel, former National Security Advisor Martin Indyk delivered a strongly worded rebuke to those who are supporting these moves in the following sections of his testimony:

“Jerusalem is a very sensitive issue, sensitive because Jerusalem is a symbol, a very important symbol for Israel, for the Jewish people, but also a very important symbol for Christians, Muslims, for Palestinians and Arabs. ...In those circumstances, it is the President’s feeling – the Administration’s feeling – that we should do nothing to undermine or pre-empt those negotiations, that we should wait and let the parties sort out this very sensitive issue before doing anything. And any move now – I believe very strongly that to make a move now would explode the peace process. ...To take action now would in one way or another, force the Administration, I think would be very explosive to the negotiations, and frankly, it would put us out of business as a facilitator of those negotiations.”

In a recent Capital Hill forum on the peace process in which I participated along with David Satterfield, who is Deputy National Security Advisor for South Asian and Near Eastern Affairs, Satterfield repeated Indyk’s emphatic and strongly worded message. So it seems that for its part, the Clinton Administration will follow its predecessors by doing nothing to alter the status of Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, this pre-election year game of Congress attempting to force the Administration to recognize Israel’s capital will continue just as it has in every pre-election year in recent memory. (One might recall that President Reagan faced the same pressure and he, too, resisted – despite having promised to support such an Embassy move during his 1980 campaign against President Jimmy Carter.)

And while the major American Jewish organizations are split on this current effort, those who want to force the issue are quite pleased that their efforts have so far won the support of three-fourths of the Senate. Even leading Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole has signed the letter – a fact which has raised genuine concerns among the Muslim and Arab American Republicans who were supporting his campaign.

In the midst if this conflict between the Senate and the Administration, and important statement, “Jerusalem: City of Peace,” was released by eight major U.S. Christian leaders.

Going well beyond the question of whose capital Jerusalem should be, the Christian leaders focused on their concern on what the real effects of Israeli policy are having on the city, its environs and its Arab residents. Openly dealing with these Israeli policies which pose a grave threat to Jerusalem, the Christian leaders call on the Administration, “as facilitator of the peace process,” to “place the question of Jerusalem high on its agenda.”

Concerned that “developments on the ground in Jerusalem area leave less and less room for negotiation,” the Christian leaders statement specifically notes:

· “In contravention of international law, more and more land is taken out of Palestinian hands and placed under Israeli control by annexation, expropriation and private purchases, often of questionable legality;
· “Israeli planning for “Greater Jerusalem” is an open secret;
· Israel’s assertion that Jerusalem will remain the “eternal and undivided capital of Israel” is widely interpreted as a claim of exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the city that preempts genuine negotiation;
· “that the Administration is backing away from the long-term United States policy that East Jerusalem is subject to UN Security Council Resolution 242 regarding territories occupied by Israeli armed forces in 1967;
· “that the Administration is failing to recognize and support Palestinian rights and interests in Jerusalem;
· “that the Administration is not using its considerable influence to halt Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and continued expansion into Palestinian areas.”

What was most significant about this Christian letter is that the lead signature was that of Cardinal William H. Keeler, President of the National Council of Catholic Bishops. Since Catholic Bishops do not sign letters as individuals, the contents of the letter have been approved by the entire institutional hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic Church and represents their strongest and most clear statement to date on Jerusalem and on Israeli violation of Palestinian rights. Among the other signatories were leaders of two principal evangelical Christian groups: the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and World Vision.

It is this leadership role played by the Catholic Church and some evangelicals that has raised the greatest concern in the Jewish community. In the past, statements such as these have come from the mainline Protestant denominations and their National Council of Churches (including Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, etc.). American Jewish groups have given up on attempting to influence these churches; but they have also learned that the weight of statements issued by these Protestant Churches do not pose a major challenge, since they do not include institutional support for the stands taken in them. But what Jewish groups know is that when the Catholics move on an issue, it can represent a major institutional voice in the public policy debate.

Major Jewish groups have responded to this statement by Christian leaders with a fury. The responses ranged from one irate editorial in a Jewish newspaper, which asked “Who Asked You?” to statements of denunciation by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the American Zionist Movement. Serious pressure will now be put on these Christian leaders to modify or retract their approval of the statement, especially the Catholics, whose courage of conviction will be challenged by U.S. Jewish organizations.

What is important is that the major U.S. Christian leadership has formally joined the debate – not only over Jerusalem’s future but over its present reality and the impact of Israeli policies that have been ignored for too long in the U.S. By forcing the debate on these Israeli policies, the signatories of the Christian letter will help to shift the debate from an abstract future to the real present.

The significance of this statement should not be ignored by Arabs, Muslims, Arab Americans or American Muslims. The U.S. Christian leadership should be supported for this bold move.

One final note: the Arab world must do more to help in the matter of Jerusalem. For Americans to realize the legitimacy and historicity of the Arab claim to the city of Jerusalem, more must be done to bring this issue into the American debate.

Israel’s campaign to be recognized as the sole proprietor of the city has gone largely uncontested. A major campaign should be launched in the United States to establish in the minds of Americans the Arab past, present and future in the city holy to three faiths and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians for whom Jerusalem is their ancestral home. Exhibitions of history and literature, speaking tours, advertising, films and other mediums should be utilized in the campaign to lend weight to legitimate Arab claims.

As I have said in many past articles, there is a debate here in the U.S. whose outcome can be of critical importance to the lives of so many in the Arab world – come and join the debate.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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