Even in the roiling Middle East, few topics raise as much passion as the future status of Jerusalem. So President Bush's signature Monday on a law that requires the United States to identify the holy city as the capital of Israel is sure to cause both elation and despair.
Mr. Bush who supported Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its capital in his 2000 campaign says he takes the new law as an expression of "the sense of Congress," and that despite the law, US policy on Jerusalem "has not changed." That means the US still officially sees Jerusalem as a "permanent-status issue" to be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians in a final peace accord.
Still, the new law cannot help but raise suspicions among Arab countries about American evenhandedness in the region. This comes at a crucial time, as the US is laboring to cobble together Arab and Muslim support for a tough stance and eventual military action on Iraq.
"This is just pouring more fuel on a smoldering fire," says Michael Hudson, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University in Washington.
The law also risks raising eyebrows in more than just the Middle East. For one thing, most other countries don't recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. In addition, some analysts note that, if carried out, the legislation would require the US to disregard a series of United Nations resolutions concerning the status of Jerusalem. Those resolutions call on Israel to reverse its annexation of Arab East Jerusalem.
A provision in the law that in effect recognizes this annexation of East Jerusalem "would go against at least three UN Security Council resolutions," says Stephen Zunes, a specialist in Arab-Israeli issues at the University of San Francisco. "That would be ironic and wouldn't be lost on the world, given that we're about to invade a sovereign nation based on its violations of UN resolutions."
The law Bush signed is the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for 2003, which provides $4 billion for American diplomacy to operate worldwide during the fiscal year that began yesterday. The authorization includes a number of provisions problematic for the administration, which is taking them merely as congressional advisory measures. Otherwise, they would constitute encroachment on the president's constitutional mandate to conduct foreign policy, Bush said in a letter to Congress.
The Jerusalem provisions are the prickliest. Congress has pressed several administrations to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but this law goes further in several ways. It requires all official US documents to identify Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and calls on the US Consulate in East Jerusalem that deals with Palestinian issues to report to the embassy in Tel Aviv rather than directly to Washington, as it currently does.
"That's a big deal," says Mr. Zunes. "It's the most clear-cut legal maneuver to date towards recognizing Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem."
The law reflects a Congress that has turned even more adamantly pro-Israeli in recent years. And during the bill's formulating stage, several congressional aides reported receiving none of the high-level objections that past administrations have made over similar language.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher countered those claims Monday, saying "the State Department made consistently clear that it was opposed to those provisions. We also have made consistently clear to everybody on the Hill we oppose legislation that hinders the president's ability to advance our interests in pursuing a negotiated [Israeli-Palestinian] settlement."
Still, William Quandt, a Middle East specialist on the National Security Council under President Carter, says congressional provisions like those on Jerusalem "cannot force the hand that does not want to be forced."
Mr. Quandt, now at the University of Virginia, says the Bush administration is taking steps to improve its standing with Arab countries as it focuses on Iraq. He points, for example, to the US decision last month not to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Israel's siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah. US pressure on Israeli leader Ariel Sharon was instrumental in getting the siege lifted.
But Georgetown's Mr. Hudson says that because of continuing dissatisfaction over how the US has handled Palestinian matters, the administration faces hardened suspicions about US goals in Iraq and broader intentions in the region. To illustrate US troubles in the Arab world, he points to negative reaction to recent US moves in favor of a prominent pro-democracy activist in Egypt, Saadeddin Ibrahim.
"The gesture went down very poorly, even among the human rights advocates and those opposed to a dictatorial regime that otherwise might have welcomed it," Hudson says. "It was spoiled by the reputation of the messenger."
Experts add that Israel-friendly moves by Congress just before congressional elections are an easy way to garner favor with pro-Israel constituencies. But they disregard the overriding desire of the American public for the US to preserve an evenhanded role in peace negotiations, these experts say. "Most Americans don't want us to be the ones determining where Arab Jerusalem is to be," says Quandt, "or what exactly is Israeli Jerusalem."