Posted on May 15, 1995 in Washington Watch

It was an unholy alliance of the Israeli right wing and their U.S. supporters, and the right wing of the Republican party, that concocted the legislation introduced by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

The intent of the Republicans is to use Jerusalem as a wedge issue to embarrass the Clinton Administration and to win some Jewish support away from the Democrats to help defeat Bill Clinton in November of 1996. The Likudnik goal was to embarrass the Rabin government by prematurely forcing the issue of Jerusalem onto the world agenda in order to unravel the peace process.

That Senator Dole has agreed to serve as the vehicle for this alliance might appear surprising. Dole has never been considered a trusted ally by the pro-Israel lobby. They have, in fact, attempted to defeat his reelection bids on a number of occasions. His voting record is mixed on 20 key pro-Israel-related votes in the 1980s. Dole only supported their position 7 times – putting him on the low end of the scale the lobby uses to measure its congressional supporters.

Dole has also not supported past efforts to move the Tel Aviv embassy. He even has been quite responsive to Arab American concerns in a number of instances. In 1988, for example, in the heat of his last presidential campaign, he initially sponsored the Senate bill that was designed to close the Washington office of the PLO. At that time another Arab American leader (who was in fact at the time co-chair of Dole’s 1988 presidential campaign) and I met with the Senator in an effort to convince him that his endorsement was wrong. Dole had his name removed from that bill and was not outspoken on that issue during the Congressional debate. He has been honored by the Arab and Muslim American communities for his efforts to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims. He has also frequently accepted invitations to speak at Arab American events and many of us know him and respect his fairness and his stature as a legislator and statesman.

But something is happening to Bob Dole this campaign season. In fact, many observers have remarked on the Senator’s effort to “remake” himself toward the end of capturing the Republican nomination to challenge Clinton next fall. Over the past several months he has restyled his approach or changed his position on a number of issues, including: abortion, the ban on assault weapons, affirmative action for minorities and now on Jerusalem.

While pandering to the American Jewish community is an obvious target of this most recent change of heart (a source within the American Jewish community told me that some right-wing fundraisers have pledged to raise $2 million for Dole’s Presidential bid), Dole also another audience in mind. The more significant target of the entire “remodeling effort” is the right-wing Christian fundamentalist movement (which, as I have mentioned before, controls 17 state Republican parties and produces the majority of the party’s primary voters in quite a few other states) and the neo-conservative camp of Republican ideologues. Both of these two groups are strong supporters of Israel’s Likud party, and Dole is waging a battle with Texas senator Phil Graham for their support.

Dole’s announcement that he would introduce the Jerusalem bill came at the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC – the largest and most powerful pro-Israel lobby), and it sent shockwaves through every segment of the U.S., population which is concerned about the future of the Middle East and the fragile peace process.

The Clinton Administration is furious. For the two days before Dole’s speech, as it became clear what the Senator’s intentions were, Administration officials worked the phones calling leading Republicans and those who they hoped would have influence with Dole, in an effort to dissuade him from this course of action. The Clinton Administration knows that Jerusalem is the one issue sensitive enough to explode the entire peace process. It is true that they have pledged not to apply public pressure on Israel regarding of the peace process. They have only recently stood by and tacitly acquiesced (while privately protesting) as the Israelis have closed the city, confiscated Arab land and established new settlements in the area the Israelis refer to as “Greater Jerusalem,” and placed harsh restrictions on Palestinian activity in the city – essentially accepting these illegal acts in order to keep pressure off the Rabin government from an Israeli public which overwhelmingly supports full Israeli control over the city.

But the Administration and the Rabin government had a tacit agreement that the formal final status of Jerusalem would not be acted upon, since that had the very real potential to completely unravel the peace process. Dole’s main intention is to force this issue to a vote which would in turn force the Administration to take a public and high profile stand on its position – something the Administration wishes very much to avoid.

In response to the Dole initiative, the Administration reissued the stern warning first given by Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk (made during his confirmation hearings before the Senate) when he said:

“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, to 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.”

And then the Administration followed up with a statement from Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who called the action ill-timed and ill-advised, and cautioned that it would negatively affect the peace process.

The Administration has successfully mobilized a number of Democratic Senators against the bill and is seeking an alternative to the Dole legislation which would both mollify the strong pro-Israel supporters in the Senate on the issue of Jerusalem while not mandating the embassy move (as Dole’s would).

Whether the Administration or Dole will succeed is not clear at this point. What is clear, however, is that Dole has forced the issue, and with the pressure of a strong pro-Israel lobby, the question of Jerusalem now becomes center stage in U.S. politics. The only questions are how bad the final outcome will be and what the “collateral damage” of the debate will be.

The American Jewish community was equally shocked by Dole’s announcement. Pro-peace groups are furious, pro-Likud groups are ecstatic, and many mainstream groups are internally divided but publicly supportive of the measure. Some pro-Israel leaders confess privately that since they have sponsored 30 initiatives like this one over the past years, they can’t very well oppose this move now. While they realize that this may very well wreck the peace process, they feel trapped by their past efforts. In other words, they played with fire in the past and are now getting burned.

While there probably is some truth to those protestations, it is also true is that many of the mainstream Jewish groups are going through the process of reshaping their public politics in order to prepare for the expected Likud victory in the 1996 Israeli elections. After supporting the Likud for years in the 1980s and early 1990s, many of these Jewish groups were uncomfortable allies of the Middle East peace process. The euphoria of the September 13th signing ceremony was short-lived, and some Jewish Americans were quick to return to their anti-Palestinian rhetoric – a rhetoric they had developed during the decade-long Likud rule. They are now reaping what they have sown and, while privately expressing discomfort, are publicly attempting to explain to the press and themselves how they can reconcile support for this embassy move with the Middle East peace process which they still claim to support.

Arab Americans and American Muslims were also shocked by the Dole move. Many members of both communities, especially the Republican portions of the communities, were actively gearing up support a Bob Dole presidential campaign. They remembered the openness of his 1988 bid and his frequent and positive appearances before Arab American audiences. After discussion with many of these people during the past few days, I have learned that those efforts are now on hold. Embarrassed and angry, Arab American and American Muslim Republicans have let the Senator’s office and campaign know of their extreme displeasure over his initiative. And while the entirety of both communities are working to stop the bill and find allies in our effort, we know that more must be done if this runaway train is to be stopped before it wrecks the peace process.

The leadership of the Arab and Muslim countries must make a clear statement in opposition to this dangerous move and to the U.S. silence in the face of aggressive Israeli government actions in and around East Jerusalem.

Since those in the U.S. who are supporting the bill, and those who are acquiescing to Israeli behavior and efforts to establish “facts on the ground” in Jerusalem, are still speaking of their support for the peace process – it must be made clear that these actions are fundamentally inconsistent with any effort toward peace. At the same time, the Clinton Administration’s stand in opposition to the Senate bill must be supported since this stand will undoubtedly face serious resistance.

Politicians, after a while, begin to believe their own rhetoric. In fact, I suspect that many truly believe that what they are now doing will not substantially hurt or alter the movement toward peace. As irrational as that may seem, many with whom I have spoken do in fact believe this paradox. There is a need for a kind of positive and productive shock therapy and a dramatic and effective Arab and Muslim response that draws a clear line in the sand and says NO!

This must be done, before it is too late.

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