Controversy surrounds bill that would move US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem
Washington — Anyone who has ever seen the light fall on the golden stones of Jerusalem knows something of the emotional pull that this ancient city exerts on Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike.
American diplomats have long considered the question of Jerusalem to be one of the most sensitive of all the difficult Middle East issues, a problem to be negotiated once other issues are resolved.
But a bill introduced by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York proposes that the United States move its embassy from Israel's coastal city of Tel Aviv inland to Jerusalem. He argues that this would simply be a matter of recognizing reality.
''Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel and our embassy in that State should be in its capital,'' says Senator Moynihan. He further contends that by refusing to move to Jerusalem and by acquiescing to a 1980 United Nations Security Council resolution calling on other nations to withdraw their embassies, the US is saying that its ''attachment to the State of Israel is tentative and subject to change.''
The Reagan administration argues that the US has been and remains Israel's staunchest supporter but that it has been consistent American policy to keep the US embassy in Tel Aviv, where almost all embassies are located. To move the embassy would undercut the administration's ability to play a mediating role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, officials say. They contend that President Carter could not have negotiated the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel if he had adopted the position of either party on the question of Jerusalem.
Administration officials have privately warned senators and congressmen that a vote in favor of moving the embassy could trigger demonstrations, mob attacks, and terrorist assaults on American embassies not only in the Middle East but also in large Muslim nations as far-flung as Pakistan and Indonesia.
The Arabic name for Jerusalem is Al Quds, meaning ''The Holy Place.'' Islamic tradition says it is the site from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. The National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA) has argued that moving the US embassy to Jerusalem would be seen as a ''deliberate affront,'' in both political and religious terms, to the Arab and Islamic worlds, which constitute almost one-sixth of the human race.
Moynihan has won the support of 37 co-sponsors for his bill. In the House of Representatives, Tom Lantos (D) of California and Benjamin Gilman (R) of New York have introduced a similar bill, which now has 213 co-sponsors.
Fearing an explosive reaction in the Middle East should the bills be approved , the Reagan administration has lobbied heavily against them. Last week, President Reagan told the New York Times that it would be ''most unwise'' for the US to move its Israel embassy to Jerusalem. Reagan suggested that if necessary he would veto the embassy legislation.
The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main pro-Israel lobbying group here, has worked intensively in support of the embassy bills, although there is no evidence that it played a lead role in getting them introduced.
Roy Jones, legislative director in Washington for the Moral Majority, said that his organization will soon begin working with AIPAC to try to get more sponsors for the Jerusalem legislation.
But organizations representing a wide range of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches have given congressional testimony opposing the bills.
In testimony presented for the United States Catholic Conference, Rev. J. Bryan Hehir told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that ''preemptive moves which touch the status of Jerusalem . . . endanger, rather than enhance, the pursuit of a peaceful solution'' to Mideast conflict.
Charles A. Kimball, director fo the Middle East Office of the National Council of Churches (NCC), told members of the foreign relations commmittee that no single issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more emotionally charged than the question of Jerusalem.
Reverend Kimball, an ordained Southern Baptist minister and a doctor of theology candidate in Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations at Harvard University, said that to move the US embassy to Jerusalem would represent a major shift in US policy, would explicitly endorse unilateral actions taken by Israel vis-a-vis Jerusalem and the West Bank and Gaza, and would ''exacerbate tensions and heighten frustrations in an already fragile situation.''
The NCC is an agency of 31 Protestant and Orthodox churches in the US that together have a membership of about 42 million.
The Reagan administration's effort to block the Jerusalem bills, meanwhile, now seems to be having some effect. Some co-sponsors are described by aides as ''uncomfortable'' with the legislation and hope that it will not come to a vote. An aide to Moynihan said that the senator is planning to propose that his bill be made ''nonbinding,'' perhaps in the form of a concurrent resolution. Such a measure would give a sense of the Congress without forcing further confrontation and a veto from Reagan.
Moynihan's aide said that the senator felt the administration had handled the question in a way that inflamed the issue. In Moynihan's view, a nonbinding resolution would still ''get something on the books'' and have an effect over a longer period of time.
But the administration still has problems with a nonbinding resolution. Such a resolution, officials say, might mark only the first step toward a binding resolution at some future date. And, they say, it might still be misinterpreted by many people in Islamic countries unfamiliar with the US legislative system.