ATHENS — President Clinton's revival of the controversial possibility of moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has angered the Arab and Muslim worlds, which have interpreted it as a threat to the Palestinians. It is a serious irritant to resumption of the recently stalled Camp David Mideast peace process.
The long-delayed move, if made, could drag the US into a minefield of legal complications stemming from pre-1948 Palestinian and foreign claims to property in Jewish West Jerusalem.
After the new state of Israel's military victories over Jordan in 1948, when Israel and Jordan divided the city, successive US administrations never recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. This remained true even after the 1967 war, when Israel wrested the eastern districts and the walled Old City, with its Jewish, Christian and Muslim shrines, from Jordan.
As a correspondent for the Monitor, I covered that war and its consequences. I remember watching a US consul in East Jerusalem in 1970 snatch an Israeli pennant from US Secretary of State William Rogers' official limousine and replace it with an American flag. It was the diplomat's way of reaffirming that the US recognized East Jerusalem only as Israeli-occupied territory, not Israel's capital. The US still does today.
Mr. Clinton was irritated by Mr. Arafat's refusal at Camp David in July to accept Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's apparent compromises on sharing sovereignty in East Jerusalem in a final peace settlement. Arafat is now trying to harden global Arab and Muslim support for full Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem. He wants to declare East Jerusalem capital of the Palestinian state - full peace deal or no full peace deal - this fall.
But neither this administration's leaders, nor the rival Bush and Gore camps aspiring to take over in Washington Jan. 20 - the date Mr. Barak has publicly said the US Embassy would be moved - may fully realize what they'd be letting themselves in for.
In October 1995, both houses of the US Congress passed by an overwhelming majority the Jerusalem Embassy Act - co-authored by Al Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and strong George W. Bush supporter Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona.
The act states that Jerusalem should remain "the undivided capital of Israel." To recognize this, it provides that the US Embassy should have been moved there from its seaside site in Tel Aviv by May 1999.
However, in view of the issue's explosiveness, the law allowed the US president to suspend the move for temporary six-month periods.
When Clinton repeated the waiver every six months, Palestinians and Arabs everywhere read the subtext to mean that East Jerusalem's future was still negotiable in American eyes, and so could still become capital of a Palestinian state.
Presidential candidate Gore, however, was cautious when asked about the embassy issue at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations before the New York primary. He said the embassy settlement should be included in the final Israel-Palestinian peace accord.
However, he added, the US would still be careful not to hurt its credibility as an honest broker in the peace process. This was, of course, well before Clinton's July promise to consider moving the embassy.
Before 1948, the real estate designated for the embassy site was privately owned by a combination of 19 Palestinian families and the Islamic Religious Trust, according to a study of the eight-acre parcel by Harvard scholar Walid Khalidi.
Mr. Khalidi's also discovered that because the British administration of the pre-1948 Palestine Mandate was using the property, the British government paid rent to the owners until leaving Palestine in 1948.
Descendants and heirs of the original 19 family owners now are counted in the hundreds. About 90 are American citizens. Lawyers for some of them have said they will sue the US if it builds an embassy on what they call "stolen land."
The legal counsel of the Washington-based American Committee on Jerusalem, George Salem, says that under terms of a 1989 Israeli-US agreement, any lease of the property would be "null and void as a matter of law" unless it were "free from encumbrances or third party claims" - which it is not.
The embassy transfer would open another Pandora's box for both Israel and the US. An issue which has been carefully hidden since 1948, but which is a potential nightmare for Israeli governments, is that of restitution claims for extensive pre-1948 Palestinian properties in West Jerusalem, as well as in the eastern city and the entire pre-1948 territory of the former British Mandate for Palestine.
Studies by Khalidi and others show that 90,000 Palestinians held title deeds to about 40 percent of all property in Jewish West Jerusalem. They and their descendants - who would have inherited the land if the Palestinians hadn't been forced to leave in the 1948 war - total 200,000 today. Some live in the West Bank or East Jerusalem - a few literally in sight of their lost homes.
On paper, the Islamic Religious Trust, Christian churches, and the British government own 36 percent of West Jerusalem.
Salim Tamari, a Palestinian sociologist and author of a recent book on Palestinian property in West Jerusalem, says legal claims are already being prepared for restitution or reparations for this lost property.
All of which makes it much easier to see why Clinton and his successor would be wise to reconsider the embassy move, despite popular American and almost universal Israeli support for it. Neither the political aggravation it is causing for the peacemakers now, nor the vast legal complications it could cause in the near future, make the game worth the candle.
*John K. Cooley, a Monitor correspondent in the Mideast from 1965 to 1978, is based in Athens for ABC News. He wrote 'Green March, Black September, the Story of the Palestinian Arabs' (Frank Cass, 1973).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society