Leave the U.S. Embassy Where It Is

Bradley Burston


My daughter's passport is part of the longest-running ruse in modern American politics.

Where other U.S. passports list place of birth as the name of a country, hers says, simply, Jerusalem.

No country. Certainly not Israel. Her passport, in a sense, is a non-paper.

Just as Washington's legation in West Jerusalem is a non-embassy. Despite explicit legislation to the contrary, the Bush White House and the Rice State Department have succeeded for years in ducking, evading, and stonewalling efforts to grant concrete form to recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Taking the lead, George Bush has played fast and loose with Federal law - and with his own explicit campaign promises - in a six-year effort to resist moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

And, for once, George Bush has got something right.

He did it again last month. Hours before hosting American Jewish leaders for a lavishly photographed Hanukkah celebration, he signed an order deferring until mid-2007 the legally mandated transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

From Bush's standpoint, the Jewish leaders took it well. Or, at least, quietly. With one exception. Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America suggested that Bush's signing a six-month waiver to delay moving the embassy, as he has now done more than 10 times, would "give a victory to the forces of terror."

"We dare not be intimidated by and appease these terrorist bullies," Klein said in a statement, which directed much of its criticism against the silence of the other American Jewish dignitaries who attended the Hanukkah observance.

"We are also deeply disappointed that American Jewish organizations have been frozen into silence about this important issue. We also urge pro-Israel Christian groups like Reverend John Hagee's Christians United for Israel to speak out. Such failure may send another harmful message - that American Jewry does not care sufficiently about Jerusalem as Judaism's holiest place."

Moving the embassy, it should be noted, is one of Klein's signature issues. In July, 1999, as then-Texas governor Bush was raising funds in Newark, New Jersey for his run at the presidency, Klein approached Bush, citing Congress' overwhelming passage of the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which states:

"Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel; and the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999."

Klein said to Bush "The Clinton administration has refused to honor pre-existing U.S. law and move the embassy to Jerusalem. Will you as president follow U.S. law and move the American Embassy to Jersualem immediately?"

"I'm afraid that might screw up the peace process," Bush replied, aware that the Israeli government had opposed the 1995 legislation. "I don't want to screw up the peace process."

His frat boy clumsiness notwithstanding, Bush was on to something. The embassy should stay where it is. Although Bush would later vow to make moving the embassy one of his first acts as president, his initial instincts were right. When there is a solution to the conflict, moving the embassy will be a certain result. In the absence of a solution, moving the embassy will move the peace process even further back.

In the cratered moonscape of diplomacy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the White House has a special responsibility to act as a mediating and moderating influence. No other party can marshal the resources that the United States can, in acting as close as it can manage to the role of honest broker.

It's no longer a matter of policy. It's a matter of life and death.

The Palestinian movement for independence may now be in its worst state ever, its inability to provide for its needy at an all-time low, its international standing compromised as never before, its internal infighting spilling over into the targeting of Palestinian children.

Morton Klein's position, and that of the hardline ZOA, is that the Palestinians should be kicked when they are down.

The ZOA, which proudly opposes compromise, negotiation, and concession, believes that the only change in Israel's policy should be kicking the Palestinians harder, or finding a spot in which the Palestinians have yet to be kicked.

The real reason that the office of the U.S. ambassador continues to face the Mediterranean and not the Knesset, has everything to do with the difference between public service and lip service.

When the Embassy Act was first proposed, the Rabin government was against the legislation, which, as then-AIPAC executive director Neal Sher has noted, was also in direct contravention of AIPAC policy.

It wasn't meant to help Israel score points, it was meant to help the Republicans retake the Clinton White House. The new speaker of the house, Newt Gingrinch, saw the issue as a way to siphon pro-Israel support and campaign donations away from the Democrats. And the Republican front runner, Senator Robert Dole, who in the past had opposed legislation to relocate the embassy, was suddenly in the driver's seat of the moving van.

True, Israel needs recognition. But Israel and its western half of Jerusalem have survived, and thrived, without it for nearly 60 years. Recognition can wait.

What cannot wait is the possibility of diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians. Every passing week, every Israeli and Palestinian casualty, every new settlement enterprise, makes a solution that much more pressing, and that much more remote.

Most Jewish leaders know that. Even AIPAC knows that.

Moving the embassy would not be a victory for Israel. Morton Klein wants Bush to move the embassy not as a victory for Israel, but as a victory for Morton Klein.

The United States knows very well that the capital of Israel is Jerusalem. Federal law has said so explicitly for more than a decade. But Washington also knows what Israel knows:

West Jerusalem will not be recognized as the capital of the Jewish state, until East Jerusalem becomes the capital of an independent Palestine.

There will not be a solution without a Palestinian state. There will be no Palestinian state without a share of Jerusalem as a recognized capital.

Washington has a unique and urgent responsibility to see to it that Israel follows through on commitments to ease the plight of Palestinian non-combatants, to truly remove checkpoints and allow freer movement of people and goods, rather than announcing counterfeit concessions the IDF has no intention of implementing.

Washington must press Israel to reduce to the lowest possible minimum, harm to Palestinian civilians in the context of fighting between the IDF and gunmen.

Washington must see to it that the route and the nature of the West Bank fence does not do harm to non-combatant Palestinians, that it does not keep them from their land and their livelihoods, that it does not divide between their children and an education, a future.

Just as Washington has a unique and urgent responsibility to see to it that Palestinian non-combatants stop suffering at the hands of their armed and irrational compatriots, whose actions are keeping international aid from reaching a growing number of the desperately needy in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

These are the tasks that Washington should be addressing, and with every measure of vigor, creativity, and intelligence that this administration can muster. If only for the sake of the legacy that George Bush will leave.

What Washington does not need to do, is to stage a provocation. That, at this stage, is the only real significance of moving the embassy.

The White House must explore every opportunity to work for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Time is running out. For Israel, for the Palestinians, and perhaps most crucially, for George Bush.

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Harvard Square Commentary, January 29, 2007