WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) called this week's votes in Congress to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem the righting of "an absurdity which has endured for nearly half a century."
Tuesday's Senate and House votes follow a decade-long battle spearheaded by Moynihan to recognize a united Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The legislation, on the eve of official festivities here to celebrate Jerusalem 3000, was welcomed by Israel and most American Jewish groups but condemned by the Palestinians and President Clinton, who said its passage would jeopardize the peace process.
Israel, which has claimed Jerusalem as its capital since 1950, annexed the eastern portion of the city after the 1967 Six Day War. The Palestinians seek eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a hoped-for future state.
With overwhelming bipartisan support, the Senate passed a vote 93-5 requiring the State Department to move the embassy by May 31, 1999. Hours later, the House of Representatives passed the measure, by a 374-37 vote, with five abstentions. The votes mark the first time the United States has moved to recognize with the force of law a united Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, voted in favor of the bill. All Northern California House of Representatives members voted in favor of it, except Ron Dellums (D-Berkeley) and George Miller (D-Martinez).
The bill declares that Jerusalem "is the capital of the state of Israel" and "should remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected." The Senate and House votes preceded visits by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert to Washington Wednesday to celebrate the 3000th anniversary of King David's declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jews.
Anticipating charges that the bill would interfere with the peace process, Moynihan said, "It is inconceivable that Israel would agree to any proposal in which Jerusalem did not remain the capital of Israel."
Aiming to win the support of the administration and lawmakers who were concerned that the move could disrupt the peace process at an especially critical time, sponsors of the measure agreed to allow the president to postpone the move by renewable six-month intervals.
But despite the compromise, Clinton lashed out at Congress only minutes after the vote, accusing lawmakers of putting the peace process in jeopardy. The president's vehement reaction surprised supporters of the legislation, who had expected a more favorable response from the White House.
Clinton, however, will not veto the legislation. Instead he will let the bill become law without his signature, according to his spokesman, Mike McCurry.
"A step such as this could hinder the peace process. I will not let this happen and will use the legislation's waiver authority to avoid damage to the peace process," Clinton said in a statement.
But Clinton could not exercise that decision until 1998, well into what would be his second term if he were re-elected. Clinton would have vetoed the legislation under different circumstances, McCurry said.
The measure directs the State Department to set aside $25 million in 1996 and $75 million in 1997 for the construction and other costs of moving the embassy. Within 30 days of the measure becoming law, Secretary of State Warren Christopher must submit a report to Congress that includes a timetable for construction and a cost estimate.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres welcomed the move. "We appreciate very much the act that was taken by the American Congress," he said. "If there is one issue that Israel is united around it is united Jerusalem, as the capital of Israel."
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin concurred. "Jerusalem is our eternal capital. It will always be that way," he said.
The Palestinian Authority did not condemn the law, as had been expected. But Faisal Husseini, the Palestine Liberation Organization's top official in Jerusalem, blasted the move, saying that it could harm Israeli-Arab peace efforts.
Palestinian and Israel negotiators are scheduled to complete talks on the final status of Jerusalem in 1999.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Dole, who spearheaded the latest senate bill, said, "This legislation is not about the peace process, it is about recognizing Israel's capital.
In fact, workers have already begun to clear a site in Talpiot in western Jerusalem, which the United States has presumably purchased for a future embassy.
Many American Jewish groups supported the goal of the legislation but withheld endorsement of the original bill that required groundbreaking to begin in 1996, fearing that it would impact the peace process and insert partisanship into the status of Jerusalem.
After the vote, however, most Jewish organizations expressed support for the bill. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, which aggressively lobbied members to support the measure, hailed its passage, as did Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The American Jewish Committee, however, did not support the legislation, concerned that it would harm the peace talks. And the Zionist Organization of America criticized Congress for dropping provisions requiring construction to start next year.