THE fragile Middle East peace process is in danger again, this time by members of Congress seeking to change the long-standing bipartisan US policy on the status of Jerusalem. Legislation has been introduced to require the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem by May 1999.
Israel, of course, claims Jerusalem as its capital, and we support moving our embassy there when negotiations are concluded.
But not yet. The US and all but two other countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv -- pending the outcome of negotiations. Every president and every secretary of state since the 1950s has taken the position that the final status of Jerusalem must be determined by negotiations. Beyond that, US policy since 1967 has been that Jerusalem should remain undivided, with holy places open to all.
Similarly, every president since Gerald Ford has opposed congressional efforts to move the US embassy. That hasn't stopped members from adopting resolutions holding that Jerusalem is, and should remain, the undivided capital of Israel, or from approving legislation supporting -- but until now not mandating -- the transfer of the US embassy.
Proponents of a move note that Israel is the only country in which the US does not maintain its embassy in the functioning capital. They argue that an embassy move will send a clear signal to Palestinians harboring unrealistic hopes of Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Finally, they argue that with Israel's claim to West Jerusalem not in question, no complications should arise from moving the embassy there.
Tel Aviv does host the only US embassy not in a country's functioning capital. But no city is like Jerusalem. Moving the embassy there would have devastating effects on US interests. It would undermine the peace process, US credibility in the Islamic world, and Palestinian moderates. That the US does not dispute Israel's claim to West Jerusalem hardly argues for moving the embassy.
The proponents of this bill do not understand -- or choose to ignore -- its potential impact on Israel's efforts to implement its peace treaties with Jordan and the PLO. In addition, moving the embassy now would signal to Israel's Arab interlocutors that the US has prejudged the outcome of the ''final status'' talks. This would cripple the US in the peace talks, and the process would screech to a halt. A constructive US role in the Middle East has always been based on an ''honest broker'' stance on crucial issues. We should not change that now.
Moreover, moving the embassy now would damage US relations with more than a billion Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia, who regard Jeru-salem as the third-holiest city in Islam.
The timing of the legislation is questionable, too. The Israeli government has not pressed the US to move its embassy. Israel and the Palestinians have reached an understanding to resolve the issue by 1999. Presidential politics may be pushing the embassy move question onto a faster track. Jerusalem this year marks the 3,000th anniversary of King David's entry into the sacred city. Its fundamental character will not be altered by the absence of the US embassy. Israel certainly knows where its capital lies, and can wait a little longer for the US to establish Embassy Jerusalem.
This is not the time to change long-standing policy. Congress should not force the president's hand on a matter of such sensitivity. In fact, it would perform a national service by permanently shelving this legislation.