Muted reaction to Bush backtrack on embassy move

WASHINGTON — President Bush's decision to postpone moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem caught few by surprise this week.

Reactions from American Jewish officials and lawmakers have been relatively muted, as attention remains focused on curbing violence in the Middle East.

"The highest priority is to end the violence, and that takes precedence over moving the embassy," said a congressional liaison for one Jewish organization.

In the midst of fragile cease-fire negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a unilateral signal of support for Israel, such as the embassy move, actually would have worked against the peace process, many analysts feel.

But while American Jewish leaders understand that the timing was not right this week, many are asking whether the circumstances ever will be appropriate, or whether the six-month extensions of a waiver against the embassy move will continue indefinitely.

Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, imposing sanctions on the U.S. foreign policy budget if the embassy relocation process did not commence. Using an escape clause in the law, however, President Clinton consistently waived the sanctions, citing the effect the move would have on the peace process.

Now, with violence continuing in the region, President Bush has taken the same action at his first opportunity.

Bush's move goes against a specific campaign pledge made at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in May 2000. Bush told the audience that he would begin the process of moving the ambassador and the embassy "as soon as I take office."

But White House officials told Jewish leaders this week that "the timing couldn't be worse" to make the move, as CIA Director George Tenet was in the region trying to facilitate a cease-fire.

"At the time he said that, we didn't have the level of instability and violence that we have now," Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said of Bush's campaign pledge.

Bush's waiver was accepted as realistic by most American Jewish leaders, who expressed mild concern.

"It's regrettable but understandable," said Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee. "The embassy should move and there will always be the argument that it isn't the right time to make the move."

Many organizations made the pro-forma case they have made for years, expressing disappointment at the latest delay.

"AIPAC is disappointed that the president has chosen to use the waiver at this time," said its spokesperson Rebecca Needler. "We hope he will remain steadfast in his commitment, stated during his campaign and again yesterday, to the process of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem."

Normally, a presidential waiver is met with outrage and threats of new legislation to weaken the president's veto power and sanctions against the State Department. A Democratic congressional source said such anger was unlikely this time.

In meetings with administration officials, the Jewish community has not made moving the embassy a top priority. Instead, Jewish leaders have sought support for sanctions against the Palestinian Authority and its president, Yasser Arafat.

Jewish leaders to date have been enthusiastic about Bush's support for Israel and his manner of mediating in the Middle East, and may not want to rock the boat.