Posted on July 26, 1999 in Washington Watch

A debate has emerged over U.S. policy toward Jerusalem. It is the result of some subtle but still intriguing changes in the way some U.S. political leaders are now addressing the question.

It appears that the position advocated by President Bill Clinton–i.e. that the United States would take no unilateral action that prejudges the final status of Jerusalem since the future of that city can only be decided in direct negotiation between the Israelis and Palestinians–has now become a fixed pole representing one side of the policy debate. Clinton’s position is shared by his Vice President Al Gore. Recently both the Vice President and his top foreign policy advisor have publicly reaffirmed Gore’s commitment to the President’s stance.

Facing off against the President and Mr. Gore are several aggressively pro-Israel members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, and the Chairman of the Republican National Committee who has recently attacked the Clinton Administration position on Jerusalem.

Echoing their party’s leader, most of the Republican Presidential challengers have called for an “immediate” move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Texas Governor George W. Bush was the one exception–until a recent flap that has confounded both friend and foe alike.

Four months ago Bush was quoted affirming the President’s position. He said, “peace has to be negotiated between the parties involved. And I am confident that they are going to be able to resolve Jerusalem in a way with which the Israelis are comfortable.” More recently Bush told one hard-line Jewish activist that he did not support relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem because such a move “will screw up the peace process.”

In a silly effort to appease some Jewish supporters and bring his position into harmony with his own party’s, Bush’s spokesperson, last week sought to “correct the record” by stating that what Bush “really meant” was that “if he is elected President, he intends to move the Embassy to Jerusalem…as soon as he becomes President.”

All of this should not, however, obscure the fact, that for the first time there is a debate underway–and there are some changes taking place.

Look for example at Mrs. Clinton’s controversial and wrong-headed letter of a few weeks ago stating her “personal belief” that “Jerusalem is the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel.” Toward the end of that letter, there is an important caveat. Cleverly worded, so as not to alienate the hard-line New York Jewish groups she was addressing, was the following statement–“of course the timing of such a move must be sensitive to Israel’s interest in achieving a secure peace with its neighbors. I will never countenance any action that would endanger Israel’s security.” In other words, in Mrs. Clinton’s evaluation, Israel’s security requires completion of the peace process and she, therefore, will not support moving the embassy unless it is agreed upon by the parties to the peace negotiations.

Herein lies the essence of the subtle shift in the way the issue of Jerusalem is being framed by some politicians.

For those who support the Middle East peace process, the completion of a negotiated peace has become a goal, in and of itself. The definition of what is meant by “completion of the peace process” is still, of course, unclear–other than that it will require the “agreement of the parties”–but it is presented as a desirable end which now competes with hollow provocative promises about Israel’s sole claims to Jerusalem.

This change may be subtle, but it does present the possibility that for the first time there may be a debate, albeit a limited one, about Jerusalem and Middle East peace. In the past, no such discussion was possible.

Democratic and Republican Party platforms from 1972 to 1984 affirmed Israel’s sole claim to Jerusalem and some would pledge to move the U.S. Embassy to the city. Despite the debate over Palestinian statehood in 1988, there was no discussion of Jerusalem. And in 1992, both President Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton took similar positions in support of a negotiated peace settlement. As a result, there was no debate that year.

The 1996 platforms of both parties took the position that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. The Republican platform of that year reflected the position of their candidate Senator Robert Dole, who had led the fight to pass the Jerusalem Embassy legislation. First the platform praised “the Republican Congress for enacting legislation to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.” It further pledged that “a Republican administration will ensure that the U.S. Embassy is moved to Jerusalem by May 1999.”

While not calling for a movement of the U.S. Embassy, the 1996 Democratic platform also took a pro-Israel position with regard to Jerusalem, in opposition to the stand taken by their candidate Bill Clinton. The Democratic platform stated that, “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”

Outraged by this contradiction, Arab Americans successfully lobbied the White House to disassociate themselves from their own party’s stand. The White House obliged. In a statement to the Party, the President noted, “Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive and volatile issues in the peace process. I remain convinced that it is unwise for the United States to take actions that could be interpreted as prejudicing matters, such as Jerusalem, which Israel and the Palestinians themselves have formally agreed to discuss only in the context of direct, permanent status negotiations.”

What has accounted for the changes in the policy discussion now taking place are two events: the Oslo Accords signed by Israelis and Palestinians in 1993; and the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Bill of 1995 which many viewed as a Likud-Republican sponsored attempt to disrupt the peace process.

According to the Oslo Accords, the Israelis and Palestinians were to move toward a phased implementation of a permanent peace, leaving discussion and resolution of the most critical issues that divide them (i.e. Jerusalem, settlements, borders, sovereignty and refugees) until the end of the process. Those who support Oslo, have taken the position that because a comprehensive peace is so important, no actions should be taken that interfere with the ability of the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve these critical “final status” issues.

Enemies of the peace process, however, have sought to sabotage the Accords by attempting to provoke debates on these very same issues. For example, the pro-Likud U.S. lobby, working with the Republican majority in Congress, succeeded in 1995 in getting the U.S. Senate to pass a bill that would, move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and therefore predetermine the final status of the city in Israel’s favor.

According to the legislation, the Administration was required to take specified measures to move the Embassy or face a congressionally imposed sanction. The only option left to the President was to use a “national security waiver” provision–i.e. to stipulate that should he order the transfer of the Embassy, the national security of the United States would be jeopardized. Since the President has declared that the peace process was in the national security interests of the United States and that moving the Embassy would interfere with the peace process, he has repeatedly used the waiver and delayed action on the Embassy.

When the President used his waiver this year, Congress threatened to pass new legislation that would remove the waiver option and require the move. It is in this context that the shift in the debate in favor of the peace process has become important.

Two other recent developments also bode well for this Jerusalem discussion. Recent polling data shows that the majority of Americans would not support taking any stand that wold compromise Middle East peace and a plurality support dividing Jerusalem to resolve both Israeli and Palestinian claims to the city.

Especially interesting are the results of a recent poll of American Jewish opinion taken by the Israeli Policy Forum (IPF), a mainstream pro-peace American Jewish organization. According to the IPF poll, 52 percent of American Jews supported President Clinton’s decision to postpone moving the U.S. Embassy, while only 30 percent opposed his decision.

In response to another related question, 25 percent opposed moving the embassy at all, while 34 percent said it should only move after peace. Only 26 percent of American Jews favored an immediate move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Possibly the most important recent development on this issue came during the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to the United States. During a meeting with 30 Jewish members of the U.S Congress, one leading congressman began to circulate a letter calling on the President to move the Embassy. Another Jewish Congressman asked Barak whether he supported this congressional action. Barak made it clear that he did not support what he called “ill-timed” initiatives that would frustrate the peace process. “What I want most,” he reportedly told the Congressman, “is to complete the peace process.” A Congressman noted that Barak also told the Jewish groups “not to get out in front of him” and interfere with his effort to achieve a comprehensive peace.

While the lines are not yet fixed in place and efforts by right wing opponents of the peace process will no doubt continue [New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, one of Mrs. Clinton’s Republican challengers for the New York Senate Seat, stated last week that he rejects her position and “believes that the Embassy should be moved immediately, without hesitation”], nevertheless it is clear that some real change has occurred in the way Jerusalem will be discussed in Middle East policy debate in 1999.

Being pro-Israel has, for some leading politicians at least, become synonymous with being pro-peace process. This, in turn, has come to mean that taking provocative unbalanced moves that would disrupt the peace talks on final status issues are to be defined as anti-peace and, therefore, politically wrong.

The change may be viewed as slight, but it is real. If the President and Vice President maintain their positions, the debate that will follow will be quite intense.

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