Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of June 22, 1999
MOVING THE US EMBASSY
An Honest Broker?
By Evelyn Gordon
By refusing to recognize Israel's right to west Jerusalem, Clinton is taking an anti-Israel position so extreme that even the Palestinians have not dared to take it officially.
President Bill Clinton once again postponed the US Embassy's move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last week. According to a 1995 law passed by Congress, the embassy was supposed to have been moved this year. However, the law permits the president to move the deadline back indefinitely by issuing a waiver every six months. To issue such a waiver, the president must declare the postponement vital to America's "national security interests." In this case, the "national security interest" Clinton considered at stake was the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Since both sides have agreed that Jerusalem's fate will be determined during final-status talks, the White House explained, it would be inappropriate for America to do anything that would appear to favor one side's claim to the city over the other's. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would irretrievably damage America's status as an "honest broker" in Palestinian eyes, Clinton said. It would be impossible to argue with Clinton's logic, were it not for one tiny problem: the site of the new American embassy is not in disputed east Jerusalem, but in undisputed west Jerusalem.
Even the Palestinians have not officially demanded that west Jerusalem be placed on the negotiating table. The PLO, of course, claims that all of Israel is occupied Palestinian land, but it knows this is an untenable negotiating position. Its official demands, therefore, have been limited to the territories Israel conquered in 1967, combined with a "right of return" for Arabs from pre-1967 Israel. West Jerusalem, which has been Israel's since 1948, is not included in this claim. Nor has Israel ever agreed that any of its pre-1967 territories should be up for discussion.
Thus, by refusing to recognize Israel's right to west Jerusalem, Clinton is not serving as an "honest broker" Instead, he is taking an anti-Israel position so extreme that even the Palestinians have not dared to take it officially: that even pre-1967 Israel should be up for negotiation during the final-status talks. The Palestinians, of course, have gleefully encouraged this position by declaring that yes, the US would forfeit all credibility in their eyes if the embassy were moved. For them, this is a godsend - the American president is making a claim on their behalf that they would not dare to make themselves. No one in the Clinton administration appears to have bothered asking how recognition of Israel's right to even the 1948 borders could constitute dishonest brokering.
If Clinton is serious about wanting to promote the peace process, his biased decision on the embassy is the worst possible move. For starters, by signaling that the US considers west Jerusalem to be on the table as well, Clinton significantly raises Palestinian expectations. Since no Israeli government could match these expectations, this makes a permanent agreement much less likely.
Even worse, however, Clinton's action reinforces all of Israel's worst fears about American mediation. Though most Israelis have accepted the idea of territorial compromise [Editor's Note: This is not true of Freeman Center members in Israel], this acceptance is conditional on the belief that whatever deal is worked out will be final: that the Palestinians will not be back in another 10 or 20 years with yet more territorial demands, backed by threats of armed violence. A major component of this belief is the fact that the US is pledging itself as a guarantor of the agreement. If, however, the US cannot be relied on to fulfill this role - if it will instead turn around and pressure Israel to accede to new Palestinian demands in the future - even moderate Israelis might start thinking that giving up the West Bank and Gaza is a step on the road to dismemberment rather than peace.
By refusing to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, Clinton is sending a loud and clear message that any Israeli concessions will indeed be met with pressure for more concessions. The Rabin government made an almost unthinkable concession when it agreed to put east Jerusalem on the negotiating table, in defiance of the virtually wall-to-wall consensus within Israel. Now, instead of rewarding Israel for that concession, the Clinton administration is trying to get west Jerusalem thrown into the pot as well.
It is, of course, hard to lay all the blame on Clinton. One cannot reasonably expect the American government to be more pro-Israel than the Israelis; and the Israeli government has acted like the lamest of lame ducks on this issue. It has not challenged the Palestinians to explain why west Jerusalem should suddenly be considered disputed territory, nor has it sent the US a strong message of the type the Palestinians have, warning it that it is forfeiting all credibility in Israeli eyes.
But Clinton should remember that winning a lame-duck government's complicity is not enough. Ultimately, the new government will have to sell its final-status agreement to the Israeli people. By undermining US credibility in Israelis' eyes, Clinton is making the Barak government's task - and achievement of his own stated goal - much harder.
(c) Jerusalem Post 1999
Evelyn Gordon comments on current affairs.