Gingrichs Israel visit might spark uproar

WASHINGTON — Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is likely to spark fireworks when he visits Israel this week.

He said that he plans to visit the site of the future U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and declare that it is time to break ground. Gingrich and Democratic Majority leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) were slated to lead a congressional delegation to Israel today in celebration of its 50th anniversary.

Their group is one of several congressional delegations planned during the next week. In all, at least 27 lawmakers are expected to visit the Jewish state this week and next.

Speaking to pro-Israel activists on the front steps of the Capitol on Tuesday, Gingrich said, "The time has come to break the ground, to build the building and expect that self-determination means that the people of Israel get to decide where their government sits."

In a show of support for Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Congress passed legislation in 1995 to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Clinton administration, however, has said that moving the embassy now would complicate the peace process.

"The people of Israel get to ask where our ambassador should be," Gingrich said. "And they have chosen Jerusalem, and we should be appropriately responsive."

Gephardt, speaking on a conference call Wednesday, said he would probably take part in a visit to the future site of the embassy.

"This is not a new idea," Gephardt said, pointing to the legislation adopted by Congress. But he added: "I don't think we should begin the building of an embassy regardless of what's happening."

The legislation calls for the establishment of the embassy by May 1999, but it also has a waiver allowing the president to delay the move in six-month intervals if he deems such action would compromise U.S. national security interests.

Some Jewish groups were sharply critical of the planned visit to the embassy site.

Americans for Peace Now sent a letter to lawmakers urging them not to participate in a "unilateral U.S. action that jeopardizes the delicate negotiations and risks Israeli security."

Privately, some Jewish officials said the proposed move smacks of grandstanding on the part of the U.S. lawmakers and expressed concern about such action at a sensitive time for the peace process.

Other groups applauded the proposed visit as an important symbolic gesture. The Zionist Organization of America said the lawmakers' presence there would "expose the fact that President Clinton is violating U.S. law, which requires him to have already begun building the embassy."

Morton Klein, the group's president, rejected claims that such a move would complicate the peace process because the site is on land in Jerusalem that is not under dispute.

The congressional delegation plans to meet with top Israeli officials to discuss a range of issues, including peace negotiations, security concerns, missile defenses and economic cooperation, Gingrich said.

The delegation's itinerary isn't yet set, but officials said they were trying to set up meetings with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and with Jordan's King Hussein during a stop in Amman.

The trip comes at a delicate time for the long-stalled peace process. The Clinton administration has been pushing Israel to accept a U.S. plan that calls for Israel to pull back from a further 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for a series of Palestinian steps to crack down on terrorism. Some congressional Republicans and Democrats have been critical of the administration's efforts to advance the plan in a way that seems to pressure Israel.

Speaking at the rally sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Gingrich denounced what he termed U.S. pressure tactics and emphasized that Israel should be allowed to decide its own future.

"The right of self-determination is what makes the state of Israel unique in the last 2,000 years of Jewish history, and that right of self-determination has to be defended at all costs — even against the best intentions of some of Israel's friends, including the United States," he said.

Addressing the same crowd, Gephardt, who's exploring a run for president in 2000, echoed a similar theme: "Friends do not give ultimatums. Friends do not dictate."