Congress yesterday overwhelmingly approved a bill aimed at forcing the United States to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by mid-1999, affirming support for the Jewish state and demonstrating renewed sensitivity to its importance in American politics.
Although the Clinton administration opposed the legislation as a threat to the fragile peace process underway in the Middle East, White House press secretary Michael McCurry said President Clinton will let the bill become law because he sees no way to get the votes to sustain a veto.
But McCurry said the president will take advantage of an escape-hatch in the bill allowing him to delay the move on grounds it would threaten U.S. security interests by disrupting peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. McCurry accused Congress of "a very unwarranted and unnecessary intrusion" into the peace process and added, "We have a waiver and President Clinton will use it."
Pushing to pass the bill before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visits the Capitol today to commemorate the 3,000th anniversary of King David's entry into Jerusalem, both houses approved the bill by margins far over the two-thirds required to override a presidential veto.
The Senate approved the legislation, 93 to 5, after modifying it at the urging of Democratic senators to allow the president to postpone the move if a delay is "necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States." Opposing the move were Republicans Spencer Abraham (Mich.), John H. Chafee (R.I.), Mark O. Hatfield (Ore.) and James M. Jeffords (Vt.) and Democrat Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.).
Later in the day, the House passed the Senate version of the bill and sent it to Clinton by a vote of 374 to 37, with six Republicans, 30 Democrats and one independent voting against the bill.
Critics, including Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee, argued the bill was a "provocative act" and said it was more about domestic politics and foreign policy. It was a "classic congressional foreign policy maneuver. . . . We get the domestic political advantage but the president gets the responsibility" for any damage that results, he added.
Proponents contended it would have no effect on the peace process or help it succeed. "This legislation is not about the peace process -- it is about recognizing Israel's capital," said Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), chief sponsor of the bill. "To do less would be to play into the hands of those who would . . . deny Israel the full attributes of statehood," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), a senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Jerusalem, which is holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has been fully under Israeli control since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, although its final status will not be determined until the concluding stages of the peace negotiations. Palestinians are seeking to make east Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state. Although countries generally locate their embassies in a host country's capital, only El Salvador and Costa Rica, have their embassies in Jerusalem. Overwhelming passage of the measure underscored the importance of the issue to candidates for high office seeking to woo American Jewish voters. The bill's chief sponsor was Dole, leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination. Only four years ago Dole opposed similar legislation. Dole said yesterday that circumstances have changed, including collapse of the Soviet Union and an end to Arab use of Cold War rivalries in their struggles with Israel.
As originally written, the legislation ordered that construction begin on an embassy in Jerusalem next year and required it be opened by May 31, 1999. In an initial concession, the Senate dropped the deadline for start of construction. Late Monday, senators reached a compromise under which the president could waive the bill's requirements for an indefinite number of six-month intervals if he determines and reports to Congress that U.S. security interests are at stake. In his criticism, McCurry said Middle East peace efforts were making progress because there has been no interference from outside parties and said the Republican effort is a hindrance, not a help, to Israel and the peace process. "They ought to butt out for the sake of the peace process," he said.
Israeli officials who had quietly opposed the move, reversed field yesterday and welcomed the bill's passage. But Faisal al-Husseini, the PLO's top official in Jerusalem, told Reuter, "By changing this position now, it can hurt deeply -- if not stop completely -- the peace process." Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.