U.S. Sen. Max Baucus' pro-Israel stance began in the 1960s while he was a Stanford University student hitchhiking through the Middle East.
"It hit me on the road from Beirut to Amman," the Montana Democrat said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., prior to his Thursday, Feb. 15 speech at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel.
"I ran into Arabs and it stunned me, a naive kid from Montana, the vitriolic hatred of Israelis," said the senator, who is seeking a third term. "It struck me how important it is to resolve differences."
Baucus, who will address the pro-Israel PAC Northern Californians for Good Govern-ment at a noon lunch, initiated with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole a bill to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem back in 1984.
"It languished for awhile," he said, till Dole — now the GOP's leading presidential contender — revived it last spring. The result was the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act, passed by Congress without President Clinton's signature Nov. 8, 1995 (Clinton felt the bill would hamper peace talks).
The law provides the State Department with $25 million this year and $75 million next year to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by 1999. At six-month intervals Clinton may postpone the move.
The bill passed this time largely because the issue has been more on people's minds lately than it was 12 years ago, Baucus said.
American supporters of Israel have "been helpful keeping it on the front burner."
Answering critics who say the law endangers upcoming talks between Israel and the Palestine Authority on the final status of Jerusalem, Baucus said, "The Palestinians have to understand that Israel should have the right to choose its own capital.
"We passed the bill and the peace process is still going on."
Baucus, who began his 18-year congressional career by serving two terms in the House of Representatives, has supported U.S. aid to Israel since the Carter administration.
"Israel is the only democracy in that part of the world," he said. "I just can't overstate the importance of a democratic government."
He also stressed the need for the United States to have an anchor in the Middle East from which to implement its own foreign policy.
And, because Israel is a military ally, Baucus has routinely opposed the sale of arms, missiles and aircraft to Saudi Arabia.
In 1994, for example, he expressed concern to Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown over the possible admission of Saudi Arabia to the Eyeglass satellite imagery consortium. He said it could endanger Israeli security by revealing defense secrets.
Flying over the Golan Heights during one of his trips to Israel, and noticing how "narrow and vulnerable it looks," Baucus said he realized "how important the Heights are to Israel's security."