Congress expected to pass embassy bill

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

WASHINGTON — When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin comes to Capitol Hill to celebrate Jerusalem 3000 later this month, Congressional leaders hope to hand him a gift — legislation to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) introduced a new version of his bill in the Senate last week requiring the State Department to move the embassy by May 31, 1999.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was planning to introduce the new bill in the House as early as this week, aides say.

Israelis and Palestinians are scheduled to conclude final status talks, including the issue of Jerusalem, by May 1999.

The new version of the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act does not include one of the original bill's most controversial provisions — requiring groundbreaking on the new embassy in 1996.

The earlier version, introduced in May, lacked the support for passage. The White House, which feared the potential impact of the legislation on the peace talks, had threatened to veto the measure.

Both Dole and Gingrich pledged to bring the new legislation up for a vote before Rabin and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert come to the Capitol Rotunda Oct. 25 to celebrate Jerusalem 3000. Both leaders have yet to decide whether to hold hearings on the measure.

With 61 cosponsors, passage of the new bill is all but assured. Without hearings, the Senate could vote as early as this week.

Among the bill's cosponsors is Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a critic of the original version.

Dole said it wasn't necessary to wait for the end of the final status talks to begin the process of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

While the new bill has not yet won the support of the Clinton administration, many Jewish groups skeptical of the earlier version have embraced the measure.

Americans for Peace Now, which led the charge against the earlier version, arguing it would derail the peace process, has decided "not to oppose" the new version.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has not yet taken a final position, according to Malcolm Hoenlein, the group's executive vice chairman. However, he expects the proposal to be widely accepted, he said. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem is "something we've supported for 40 years."

The Conference of Presidents did not endorse the earlier bill, and called for a compromise.

Hoenlein said he was "disappointed" that the Clinton administration, which has opposed legislation on the issue, "has made no effort" to seek a compromise bill.

AIPAC, which has led the charge for the bill, hailed the new version.

"This new legislation will once and for all rectify a half-century wrong," said Neal Sher, AIPAC's executive director.

Israeli officials have supported moving the embassy but remain concerned over a potential move's impact on the peace talks.

"It's time to move the embassy to Jerusalem even though I'm sure the Arab world will not applaud the Americans," said Yossi Beilin, Israeli economics and planning minister.