Baraks plea stops Senate vote on embassy

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WASHINGTON — Following Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Barak's plea to U.S. lawmakers to avoid "ill-timed" initiatives that could frustrate his peace efforts, four senators have backed down from forcing a vote on relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Barak got what he wanted. At least for now.

Last week, Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had the votes to cut $100 million from the State Department's budget if the president did not declare that "the United States now formally recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that it is United States policy that Jerusalem should remain undivided."

The measure also would have required the United States to "carry out official ambassadorial functions in the city of Jerusalem, Israel."

The senators had already postponed similar action until after the Israeli elections, but now had the ability to advance their cause.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee seemed stuck. It wanted to support Barak but also could not abandon its allies, which it had helped put out on a legislative limb.

With the support of the Clinton administration, a compromise eventually was struck under which the senators would quietly add their amendment to the State Department Appropriations bill through a procedure that did not require a vote.

All parties expected that the measure would be dropped before the bill reached the president's desk.

In the end, the amendment was not included in the bill due to an objection from Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).

There was no public debate, no floor vote and no public confrontation with the White House.

Barak, on this issue, had gotten his wish.

Jewish political activists working against Barak's calls for leniency will likely to run into obstacles on Capitol Hill now, where at least one senior senator is dismissing their efforts.

"It's time for them to realize where we are — Israel, the United States, the Palestinians– in terms of negotiations and direction," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said in a telephone interview.

Lautenberg clearly does not expect that the entire Jewish community will unite behind Barak.

"We will never have in the Jewish community– even if there are only three people — we will never have unanimity."

By not forcing the embassy issue last week, AIPAC was able to send a message to Capitol Hill that the days of confrontation — a hallmark of the last three years under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — were over.

The pro-Israel lobby, which had been widely criticized by some of Barak's top advisers last year for fomenting unnecessary battles with the Clinton administration, had delivered on its promise to support the Barak government.

This was "a decision that reflects the need to reconcile the need to move the embassy with Israel's pursuit for peace with its neighbors," a senior AIPAC official said on the condition that his name not be used.

Sensitive that it would be accused of going soft on Jerusalem, the AIPAC official stressed that the group is "never going to abandon the effort to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem."

But, the official said, "we are moving in a prudent and moderate manner to achieve that objective."

Instead of voting on the issue, 84 senators wrote a letter last week to urge Clinton to move the embassy.

"Jerusalem is Israel's capital, a fact that should have been recognized long ago by putting our embassy there," stated the letter released last Friday.

Clinton has promised not to move the embassy until the Palestinians and Israelis resolve the issue of Jerusalem in final-status talks.

More congressional action on Jerusalem is expected in the months to come.

Martin Indyk, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, went on the offensive this week and asked the Jewish community to "do its part" to support the peace process.

"All of us are obliged to do all that we can to help Arabs and Israel come to terms," Indyk said in a speech to Hadassah delegates gathered in Washington on Monday for their annual conference.

"The Bible says first we have to make peace at home. We need peace in our own community, our own American Jewish community."