JERUSALEM — Palestinian leaders on Wednesday condemned the U.S. congressional vote to relocate the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as a partisan move on behalf of Israel and a provocation of the Arab world.
The decision, which recognizes Israel's claim to an undivided Jerusalem as its capital, is a slap in the face to millions of Muslims who also regard Jerusalem as a holy city and a strike against the U.S. role as a Middle East mediator, they said.
"This step is aimed against Islamic feelings and the Arab world position," said Ahmed Tibi, an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Israeli issues. "Nobody can say to Palestinians that Jerusalem is the capital of Israelis alone. East Jerusalem is occupied--even according to longstanding American policy. It will be the capital of Palestine."
On Palestinian radio, anger at the decision overshadowed any celebration as Israeli police packed up to move out of their station in Janin, marking the beginning of Israel's pullout from West Bank cities.
The fate of Jerusalem--the city that is holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews and that the Israelis call their "undivided and eternal" capital--is to be decided along with other difficult issues in the final stage of peace talks to begin in May.
Ahmed Korei, the Palestinians' chief peace negotiator, called Tuesday's U.S. congressional vote "a bad decision and bad timing. It harms trust and confidence and violates all of the rules."
Israel officially proclaimed Jerusalem its capital in 1950, when Jordan still controlled the eastern part. Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and annexed it.
Throughout, the United States has maintained its embassy in Tel Aviv, asserting that the status of Jerusalem must be resolved by negotiation. Only El Salvador and Costa Rica have their embassies in Jerusalem.
President Clinton opposed the bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) out of concern that it would anger the Palestinians to the point of derailing peace negotiations. So did Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin--until it became clear that the bill would be put to a vote and pass overwhelmingly.
"Without a doubt, the transfer of an embassy such as the United States', whenever it will be, is always welcome. We hope additional embassies will be transferred to Jerusalem," Rabin told Israel Radio from the United States. Rabin was in Washington on Wednesday for a celebration of the 3,000th anniversary of King David's conquest of Jerusalem.
The congressional vote--a victory for the opposition Likud Party and for conservative American Jews--requires the U.S. Embassy to be in Jerusalem by May 31, 1999, but a waiver provision allows the President to delay the move six months if he declares that it would harm U.S. security. He could declare additional six-month delays, in an effort to maintain neutrality on the issue if the negotiations are still going on.
Some political analysts argue, however, that by making the decision to move the embassy before final status negotiations, the United States has already weakened Palestinians at the bargaining table, since one of Israel's motivations for making concessions would be to gain international recognition of Jerusalem as its capital.
Rabin aides in Jerusalem downplayed the potential impact.
"It is symbolic. The hard facts are decided in negotiations," said a government official who asked not to be identified.
Arguing that both sides would make concessions on Jerusalem, he said: "The fact is, we have managed to put 150,000 Jews in East Jerusalem, and they are not going to leave. At the same time, we have acknowledged the fact that Palestinians exist in East Jerusalem by including them [among those eligible to vote in Palestinian] elections. This shows that the reality here is more pragmatic than the rhetoric."
Since the interim peace accord was signed in Washington last month, Israeli Economics Minister Yossi Beilin has begun laying the groundwork among the Israeli public for negotiations over Jerusalem.
Beilin is the architect of secret peace negotiations in Oslo and the framework 1993 Israeli-Palestinian agreement. He has drawn a flash of protests with statements that Israel will have to give Jerusalem's 170,000 Palestinians a measure of self-rule in the end, perhaps with an independent municipal council in a city under Israeli sovereignty.
On Wednesday, the conservative, English-language Jerusalem Post called this a "sad commentary" on Israel's negotiating position. It said that "what Beilin declares today, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres adopts tomorrow, and Rabin signs the day after."
Palestinian commentators, meanwhile, raged that Jerusalem's future has become a pawn in U.S. presidential politics, a way to court American Jewish votes. "This is a provocation," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of a Palestinian study center. "Why use Jerusalem as an electoral ticket in the United States?"